How Jewish Can a Jew for Jesus Be?

How Jewish Can a Jew for Jesus Be?

Jewish believers in Jesus are often accused by fellow Jews of not being Jewish enough in their practice. At the same time, there have always been believers in Jesus who labeled as legalism” any attempts by Jewish believers to keep Jewish practices. By legalism they usually mean an attempt to win God’s favor or their own salvation by keeping the Law. In order to understand “how Jewish” a Jewish believer in Yeshua can be in the 20th century, we need to take a look at the Jewish believers of the first century and some of the problems with which they wrestled.

Gentiles Becoming Jewish?

The first century saw the rise of the movement proclaiming Jesus as Messiah and Redeemer. Gentiles followed Jews in believing in the Messiah of Israel. Before this, the phenomenon of Gentiles becoming Jews—adopting Jewish faith and Law—was quite common. Even in the pre-exile period, people. such as Rahab the harlot and Ruth the Moabitess entered into the commonwealth of Israel. It has been assumed that Rahab and Ruth became genuine believers who, besides exercising personal faith in the God of Israel, adopted the beliefs and lifestyle which the rest of Israel practiced.

Others, however, seemed to adopt the Jewish nation without genuine faith in her God. We read in Esther 8:17, describing the time when the edict for the attack on Jews was to be carried out and Jews were given the right to avenge themselves on their enemies, “many among the peoples of the land became Jews, for the dread of the Jews had fallen on them.” Perhaps some of these Gentiles really became Jews in faith and practice, while others only acted as Jews to escape the sword or to curry favor with the government because of the important positions held by Mordecai as prime minister and Esther as queen.

Some time later, in the first century before the Messiah, the beliefs and lifestyles of Judaism had a powerful attraction for many peoples of the Roman empire, because by this time Jewish people were scattered throughout the empire, worshipping in their synagogues. Beliefs differed sharply between pagans and Jews, who emphasized a moral lifestyle and a belief in only one God:

Judaism…summoned paganism to appear before the tribunal of truth, and there placed its own sublime faith beside the low, degrading forms of belief of its adversary.1

As a result, many pagans became “God-fearers,” rejecting their worship of idols and sitting in the synagogues on the Sabbath day. To become full proselytes was difficult for men who sympathized with Judaism, because of the rite of circumcision, yet there were many among both men and women who did become full Jews.

Whoever Heard of a Gentile for Jesus?

It was not surprising, therefore, that when the message of Yeshua, the Jewish Messiah, spread among the Gentiles, questions arose as to why these Gentile believers should not now also embrace Judaism. Peter’s ministry in the house of Cornelius, a centurion (Acts 10), had raised many questions among the Jewish believers in Jerusalem as to what the apostle was doing in the house of a Gentile and also why, after becoming believers, the household of Cornelius had not become Jews.

Now the apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them”

Acts 11:1-3

Peter defended his action by telling the Jerusalem believers about his experience in the home of Simon the tanner (Acts 9:43-10:23) and how he was directed by God himself to go to the home of Cornelius. Peter declared that the Holy Spirit came upon those in the house of the Gentiles even while he had been preaching: “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, just as He did upon us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15). The answer seemed to satisfy the questioners and, for the time being, there was peace in the Jerusalem congregation: “And when they heard this, they quieted down, and glorified God, saying, ‘Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life'” (Acts 11:18).

After the scattering of Jerusalem believers, Philip went northward and told the Samaritans about the Messiah, and they also believed. Other apostles spoke to the Gentiles in Antioch, and great numbers of them believed in Yeshua. But when news of this venture reached Jerusalem, the believers sent Barnabas to Antioch to see what was happening. Barnabas rejoiced at what he saw:

Then when he had come and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord

Acts 11:23-24

And yet, this state of affairs was bound to have serious implications. Gentiles believing in Jesus?! The Jewish believers still thought it strange and didn’t quite know what to do with the Gentile believers.

The work of Paul and his companions during the first missionary journey in establishing congregations among Gentiles also raised many questions for the Jerusalem believers. The test case came very quickly when some of the people from Jerusalem went to Antioch and proclaimed to the Gentiles, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).…

This set off a full-scale debate between Jewish believers about what should be a proper message to Gentile believers: Do Gentile believers in the Jewish Messiah need to adopt Jewish customs? This debate occurred primarily among Jewish believers and not between Jewish and Gentile believers.

Because of the spread of the message of Yeshua among Gentile believers and previous experience with Gentile believers who had embraced Judaism, it was necessary to have a decision by the elders of the Jerusalem congregation. Should they demand that Gentile believers in the Messiah keep the Jewish laws?

What Do You Do With a Gentile for Jesus?

Not all Jewish believers in Yeshua insisted that Gentile believers become Jewish in their practice and lifestyle. That a sizable number held to the supremacy of the Law, there is no doubt. But the leading elder of the Jerusalem congregation took a position contrary to those who insisted that Gentiles become Jewish. James declared, “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:19). He did ask Gentile believers to refrain from immorality and to have the greatest respect for blood, synonymous with life; but beyond these directives, nothing else was added. In other words, James concurred with Paul that Gentile believers do not need to take on the Jewish lifestyle.

It can be presumed that when James spoke for this congregation, he represented a majority opinion, that Gentile believers do not need to “become Jewish” as had been the case before the first century. But James said nothing to Jewish believers in the Messiah about their own relationship to the Law.

Here is a currennt Jewish assessment of the Jewish believers in Israel in the first century:

In general, these Judeo-Christians’ way of living differed from that of the Jewish majority only through their belief that the Messiah had already come and the ensuing additional emphasis upon the ceremonies of baptism and the Eucharist.2

These Jewish believers, who continued to live within Israel, proclaimed the message that salvation is not something earned by keeping the Law. Rather, salvation is made possible by the Messiah’s atonement for sin, because of the grace of God. But while they were proclaiming this message of grace, not works, they also lived a religious Jewish lifestyle as part of that culture. They contextualized their beliefs and lifestyle in accordance with a scriptural message.

But the difficulty over what to do about Gentiles and Jewish law did not end after the Jerusalem Council’s decision. As the majority party continued to visit the congregations of Gentile Christians, so did Jewish believers who differed with James. It was the latter, however, who hampered Paul’s ministry. He seems to refer to these disruptive influences in the following New Testament scripture passages:

Beware of the false circumcision

Philippians 3:2

Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them

Romans 16:17

Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day

Colossians 2:16

These references suggest that the Jewish believers for whom the Law was paramount were carrying on an active campaign among Gentile believers. Looking at the New Testament scripture language of Paul, modern Jewry tends to judge him harshly for his “anti-Law” stance. On the other hand, to the church in its Hellenistic-Roman context after the third and fourth centuries, the apostle’s language was seen as proof that no believer is to have anything to do anymore with the Law. In fact, Paul is viewed by the later church fathers as against anyone who would practice any features of the Law. Yet he himself seems to have remained all his life a fairly observant Jew. Salo Baron offers helpful insight in A Social and Religious History of the Jews:

Not only was the entire chronology of {Paul’s! journeys linked to such Jewish holidays as Passover and the Day of Atonement, but, in accordance with Jewish law, he circumcised Timotheus the son of a Jewess…Moreover, after returning from his preachment to the Gentiles and on his arrival in Jerusalem, Paul did not mind going through the public ceremony of purification…In the same Epistle to the Galatians in which he coined the famous phrase, “For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God” (2:19), he also testified “to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law” (5:3), merely adding that compliance with the law will avail nothing, unless it is combined with “faith [bold added, i. e. a scriptural faith] which worketh by love” (5:6).3

Paul states that no one has any right to boast, whether one is a Jew (circumcised) or a Gentile (uncircumcised). What really matters, according to the apostle, is that a circumcised Jew and an uncircumcised Gentile both need to come to faith in Yeshua as the Messiah, and then demonstrate that the heart has been circumcised. But the struggle over the Law continued.

The Struggle Between the Church and Jewish People

While the struggle between Gentile believers in Yeshua and Jewish people in general began in a small measure even during the 200s, probably the first instance of the real stiffening began with the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.

The Council was attended by 318 bishops and its main directive concerned the Person of the Messiah. This was necessary, for there could be no heresy in this respect.

However, another decision was made at the same council—the celebration of Easter was to be separate from the Jewish Passover. The action was particularly grievous because there was no Jewish representation, even though there was at least 18 Jewish bishops in the land of Israel. “Their absence left a free hand to the capitulars (bishops) who could establish norms on certain subjects without meeting any opposition,” wrote Father Bellarmina Bagatti.4 Bagatti further emphasized that “once the way was open, future councils followed the same track, ever widening the division among Christians” (i.e. between Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus).5

Once this course was set, with no Jewish believers present to register alternate opinions, it was then natural for consequent councils to continue and build upon the decisions of the first general council, and to completely restructure a calendar cycle and other practices different from Jewish tradition. In time, the two groups of believers were divided, and anything that smacked of Jewish practices ever afterward was considered legalistic “Judaizing.” After the fifth century Jewish people who believed in Jesus had to adopt the Hellenistic-Roman way of life and for all practical purposes abandon their Jewishness.

The theological decisions made by the Council of Nicea and other councils which followed were deplorable. Chrysostom, the golden-mouthed preacher at the end of the 300s, wrote homilies directed against the Jewish people, describing their synagogues as domiciles of the devil, picturing Jewish people as devils and cunning hucksters, and emphasizing that Christians (only one kind, the Gentile ones), were to hate the people who killed Christ (the Greek word for Messiah).6

Chrysostom also bitterly remonstrated with the Christians (including Jewish believers) who were following Jewish customs, saying that this was a horrible disease. He raised questions as to why Christians (Jewish believers) celebrated Easter on 14 Nisan (Passover), and why when Christians were ill, Jewish doctors were consulted instead of calling upon Jesus and the virgin.7

It is no wonder, with these precedents already in the church at the end of the 300s, 400s and afterward, that the issue of “Judaizing” (keeping Jewish law and tradition) was such a strong one. Any Christian ever afterward who even tried to think in terms of a valid practice of Jewish customs could be cut down and told that they were not following the “correct” practices of the church (out of a Hellenistic-Roman culture context!).

Times Have Changed

Most Jewish believers in Yeshua today are not willing to adopt a Hellenistic-Roman culture. We view the Law differently than did the fourth century bishops.

The Mosaic Constitution or Covenant was made up of four main elements: (1) the moral aspect of the Ten Commandments, (2) the sacrificial, (3) the juridical with its civil and criminal law codes, and (4) the models of worship and lifestyle, i.e., the holidays, dietary and other practices. Once the Messiah came to fulfill the sacrificial element of the Law, and furthermore when the Temple was lost, there could no longer be any Mosaic Law as a packaged unit of the four elements.

In no way, however, are all the elements of the Law done away with. The moral law, now a part of the New Covenant, is written upon the believer’s heart through the work of the Holy Spirit. The sacrificial element is subsumed under the ministry of Jesus so that in his death we see all five Levitical sacrifices. The juridical aspect does not play a part inasmuch as followers of Yeshua are not a nation which enforces civil and criminal law codes. However, the elements of the Law which remain problematic are the models of worship and lifestyle.

We cannot in this space discuss all the possibilities for defining a specific lifestyle based on the Jewish heritage. One example of a valid use of the models of lifestyle from the Mosaic Law is our involvement with the Jewish calendar. Celebrating the Passover is a beautiful way to emphasize the redemptive significance of the sacrifice of the final Passover Lamb, Yeshua. On the Passover table there are foods reminding us of the bitterness of life when the people of Israel were subjected to Egyptian bondage 3500 years ago. In observing the Passover, we can point to the fulfillment of Israel’s redemption through the Messiah, as Jesus himself did. With the unleavened bread at the end of the meal and with the third cup, Jesus instituted the Lord’s table. When we commemorate the Passover today, the symbolized deliverance proclaims the reason for which Jesus came; he is the atonement for our sins.

We also remember Shavuot (the Feast of Tabernacles), which emphasizes the final harvest season on the Jewish calendar. As the priests poured out water at the great altar on the last day of the feast, they danced around it, singing,

“Behold, God is my salvation,
I will trust and not be afraid;
For the LORD GOD is my strength and song,
And He has become my salvation.”
Therefore you will joyously draw water
From the springs of salvation

Isaiah 12:2-3

Yeshua presented the same great truth:

Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.'” But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified

John 7:37-39

The Messiah demonstrated that he is the One from whom people will draw water from the wells of salvation, that is, to have the eternal life of which Isaiah spoke. In the context of this holiday, we proclaim its redemptive fulfillment in Yeshua the Messiah. We can point out that this holiday will also be celebrated at a future time when nations will send their representatives to Jerusalem. As Zechariah wrote, “Then it will come about that any who are left of all the nations that went against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths” (Zechariah 14:16).

A Look to the Future

Ever since the first century, some Jewish people have believed that Messiah has come in the person of Yeshua. In fact, the early church (the followers of Yeshua) was more Jewish than Gentile. The Jewish apostle Paul told the Jewish church of his day that Gentile believers in Yeshua should not be forced to follow Jewish practices. The church is not a “goulash” so that every believer comes out looking the same, talking the same, acting the same. The church of Yeshua is one body which has many lifestyles and modes of worship. In today’s predominantly Gentile church, we Jewish believers are saying that we should be given the same scriptural freedom to worship and proclaim the Messiah within the context of our own heritage. And it’s happening.

  1. Heinrich Graetz, History of the Jews. Vol. 11 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1893), p. 204.
  2. Salo Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, Vol.11, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), pp. 74-75.
  3. Ibid, pp. 78-79, but see also E.B. Allo, “Evolution de l’evangile de Paul.” Revue Biblique 50, pp. 165-193, from where Baron derives his information.
  4. Fr. Bellarmine Bagatti, The Church from the Circumcision, tr. by Fr. Eugene Hoade (Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press. 1971), pp. 86-87.
  5. Ibid, p. 87.
  6. Fr. Edward Flannery, Anguish of the Jews (New York: Macmillan, 1965), pp. 48-49, citing Chrysostom, Homilies Against the Jews, 1:1; 6 6: 7:1
  7. Bagatti, p. 92.

Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible. A.J. Holman Company, Philadelphia and New York. 1973.


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