Messianic Judaism Beyond the Eddie Long Debacle

By now, many readers are aware of the sorry, sad and blasphemous spectacle of the disgraced bishop of New Birth Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA being wrapped in a Torah scroll and proclaimed "king" as a restoration ritual after he negotiated a financial settlement with at least four men who accused him of using his pastoral authority to coerce them into a sexual relationship. (If any of this is new to you, please see my previous post.) The key player in the unholy ritual, Ralph Messer, claimed to be a Messianic Jewish rabbi. His claims to s'micha, ordination in -- and for that matter, membership in -- any Messianic Jewish community has been vehemently rejected by the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) and the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA):

"Messer is not recognized by any major branch of Messianic Judaism and, under the standards of the UMJC and the MJAA, is not even considered part of our community, let alone a rabbi... We condemn Messer's flagrant disrespect of the Sefer Torah in this ritual and his misrepresentation of Jewish tradition, an abuse which must stem either from ignorance or great presumption."

These unfortunate events provide an opportunity to look at the Messianic Jewish community, sitting -- uncomfortably for some -- at the intersection of Judaism and Christianity. Messianic Jews are believers in Yeshua l'Natzeret -- the Hebrew name of Jesus of Nazareth -- as the Son of God and, they identify as Jews. The overwhelming majority of (other) Jews, whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal or unaffiliated, reject this identification. The tension between these two communities' understandings of who is and is not a Jew is not unlike the tension between Mormons and the wider Christian community on who is a Christian. Each community has the right to assert its own religious identity and draw boundaries around who is included and who is excluded, even if (and when) it conflicts with another community's self-articulation. I respect the right of each community to self-definition. I cannot say who is and who is not a Jew, because I am not a Jew. I can and do reflect on the implications of that discussion for Christians.

The question of who identifies as a Jew is complicated by, or perhaps better, enriched by, the great diversity within Judaism: There are Jewish communities in which Jews are only those whose mothers are Jews or who have undergone conversion by a specific subset of the broader Jewish community, others in which Jewish paternity or conversion in a wider circle of rabbinic authority is definitive, Jews who observe traditional halacha, ritual laws, scrupulously, religious Jews who don't keep kosher, those whose kashrut is vegetarianism or veganism, those who use their iPhones on Shabbat and those who don't, communities in which women are rabbis and cantors and lay-readers of Torah and those in which they are not, communities in which same-gender couples are wed and welcomed along with their children and those where they are not, and there are Jews of all hues and of all ethnicities.

The contestation of intersecting and overlapping identities between Christians and Jews is not a modern phenomenon. The early church emerged in that interstitial and fertile space. For me, Miriam -- Mary -- of Nazareth, mother of Yeshua, Jesus, represents this space at its most fecund. The earliest followers of Jesus, were Jews as was he, integrating his messianic claims into their own (first century proto-rabbinic) Judaism while other Jews rejected them. There would be significant overlap between the two communities for the first 800 years of the Church and a lingering somewhat permeable boundary between the communities for perhaps two more centuries. There were Gentiles who followed Christ who converted to Judaism, some who left the Church to do so. There were questions about which ancient Israelite and Jewish practices and commitments Jewish and Gentile disciples needed to follow. The issue was so important that it became the topic of the first of the great Church councils. In Acts chapter 15 there is no small matter of debate over the issue of circumcision for Christians. The elders in Jerusalem decide that it is unnecessary, however in a strong dissent the Apostle Paul has his traveling companion Timothy circumcised as an adult in the next chapter, rejecting their ruling.

The theological claims of contemporary Messianic Jews are a potent reminder to (other) contemporary Christians that Jesus of Nazareth cannot be properly understood outside of his own Jewish identity and context, which permeate the emergence and development of the Church. That context can be difficult to access because of the subsequent Western ascendency in Christianity obfuscating its Eastern, Jewish origins. In particular, the Westernized New Testament tradition intentionally obscures the Jewish context of the Christian Scriptures, for example by marginalizing the Jewish names and therefore identities of the founders of the church so that Miriam becomes "Mary," Yeshua becomes "Jesus" and Ya'akov, Jacob, becomes "James." This is not an issue in some Eastern Christian traditions such as the Ethiopian and Syrian Orthodox Churches, Coptic Church and Arabic-speaking Eastern and Western Rite Churches.

As I seminary professor I encourage my students and others interested in the emergence of the Church from its Jewish origins to encounter the Christian Scriptures through the scholarship of the Messianic Jewish community; David Stern's translation of the New Testament is a good place to begin, and its name, The Complete Jewish Bible (with the Tanakh or Old Testament) engenders a new round of completing, conflicting claims and conversation.