Messianic Judaism

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Inspired by the charismatic Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Messianic Judaism is a movement of who considered themselves completely Jewish and completely Christian. There were not simply Jewish converts to Christianity, but a group who embraced Jewish customs, rituals, and identity while believing that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. Rather than joining an established Christian denomination, Messianic Jews have formed their own congregations and organizations that are independent but associated with evangelical Protestantism in the United States.

Prominent people in the movement include Martin Chernoff, who presided over the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (1971-1975), as well as Louis Goldberg. The organization Jews for Jesus also had a large impact on popularizing Messianic Judaism.

Although Messianic Jews have faced criticism and skepticism from various groups, one third of American Jews in 2013 say that believing Jesus is the Messiah is compatible with Judaism.

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Coming to prominence largely during the charismatic Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Messianic Judaism is a specific subsection of evangelical Christianity that understands itself as being both authentically Jewish and authentically Christian. The most important distinction of Messianic Judaism from other Christian denominations is that its adherents seek to preserve their Jewish identity while also accepting Christian doctrine and theology. Though the term "Messianic Judaism" has had a flexible definition in the past, it does not simply refer to a Jewish convert to Christianity, but instead refers to a Jewish believer in Jesus Christ (often called Yeshua) who nevertheless embraces Jewish custom, ritual, and identity. Rather than joining an established Christian church -- Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc. -- Messianic Jews have formed their own congregations and organizations that are independent but associated with evangelical Protestantism in the United States.


"Judaizing" was long considered a heresy in Christian thought. Condemnations of excessive Jewishness in Christian doctrine and practice resound in the writings of clergy as far back as John Chrysostom (c. 400 CE) and up to the present day. Such hostile attitudes helped drive a deep wedge between Christians and Jews, making integration between the two almost impossible and forcing a decision upon Jewish converts to Christianity that often resulted in the renunciation of their Jewish identity and culture, not to mention religion.

However, in the early modern era some Christians began to take a different approach. Influenced by premillennial theology and evangelical practice, a number Jewish converts to evangelical and pietistic Christianity sought to integrate their Jewish background into their new faith. Some of these Hebrew Christian communities were modestly successful, particularly the congregation Joseph Rabinowitz founded in the late nineteenth century in Russia. Evangelical luminaries like D. L. Moody were impressed with his work and Rabinowitz was even invited to evangelize at the World Columbian Expedition in 1893. Also in the 1890s, the Hope of Israel mission established a Jewish Christian community in New York City that asserted the importance of Jewish converts to observe both Christian and Jewish traditions.

Nevertheless, it was not until the 1960s-1970s that Messianic Judaism as a distinct movement began to gain traction. Arriving on the heels of the charismatic Jesus Movement of the time, the phrase Messianic Judaism came to mean believers who considered themselves completely Jewish and completely Christian. The word "messianic" (meshichyim) had a more positive connotation than the usual Jewish word to designate Christians (notzrim), which bore a sense of foreignness. A surge in Jewish interest in ethnic roots took place in the same decade, spurred on in part by the revitalized Jewish state in Israel achieving a remarkable victory in the Six-Day War of 1967. Louis Goldberg, a Jewish evangelical Christian who directed the Department of Jewish Studies at the Moody Bible Institute, was a noteworthy proponent of the importance of Israel, God’s covenant, and pride in Jewish heritage in light of the war. This growing interest in Jewish ethnic identity coincided with the charismatic movement of the 1970s (particularly with the missionary outreach of charismatic churches like Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel) and helped give rise to Messianic Judaism as a distinct form of evangelical Christianity. When Jewish evangelicals like Martin Chernoff -- who changed the name of the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America to the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America -- began assembling large followings, it was clear that Messianic Judaism was becoming a vigorous movement.

Though initially wary of the innovations in Messianic Judaism, evangelical Christians largely came to embrace the movement as authentically Christian. Louis Goldberg wrote an article in Christianity Today entitled "The Messianic Jew," in which he defended Messianic Judaism. Scholars at Moody Bible Institute, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Fuller Theological Seminary expressed sympathy for the growing movement. More liberal Christians have been suspicious of Messianic Judaism (as too closely tied to conservative evangelical Christianity) and religious Jews perhaps even more so -- the Jews for Judaism organization was founded in 1985 in conscious resistance to the messianic organization Jews for Jesus.

Messianic Jews have struggled at times to maintain both their Christian and Jewish identities, but have managed to build and maintain their own subculture coterminous from evangelical Christianity. Furthermore, recent polls suggest that Messianic Judaism is finding more acceptance in traditionally Christian and Jewish circles. A 2013 Pew Research Center study suggested that more than one-third (34 percent) of Jews in the United States said that believing that Jesus is the Messiah is compatible with Judaism, even though the vast majority of those polled do not hold such a view.

Distinctive Beliefs

The key theological feature of Messianic Judaism is its profession of belief in Jesus Christ as the Jewish Messiah. Orthodox Trinitarian theology is broadly upheld, and Jesus is viewed as the Son of God who became incarnate in order to redeem humanity through his sacrificial atonement. This view is what sets it apart from other forms of Judaism, and leads many Jews and Christians to view the group as being Christian rather than Jewish -- despite Messianic Jews’ insistence on being both.

Within Christian theology, Messianic Judaism is distinct for a variety of beliefs. Of particular importance is the movement’s widespread renunciation of Replacement Theology -- or supercessionism -- that holds that Christianity superseded and obviated Judaism. Messianic Jews uphold the Old Testament as binding, as it was not discarded by Yeshua but rather affirmed. As such, some Messianic Jews adhere to the dietary restrictions and sabbatical laws of Judaism. However, Mosaic Law is not considered necessary for salvation, as that is only achieved through Christ’s atonement. In addition, the New Testament is upheld as divinely inspired as well. Where Messianic Judaism is most similar to evangelical Christianity is in its premillennial eschatology. Prevalent in conservative evangelicalism, premillennial views of the "End Times" often orient around the historical importance of Israel and God’s continued covenant with the Jewish People. Central to this construction of premillennialism is a belief in Christ’s Second Coming, the millennial reign, and the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple -- a project that evangelical Christians, Messianic Jews, and even Orthodox Jews have sometimes collaborated on, despite their theological differences.

Notable People and Organizations

Joseph Rabinowitz is an early example of a Jewish Christian who sought to maintain his Jewish identity, but he was not technically a Messianic Jew. In the era of the 1960s and 1970s, Jewish Christians like Martin Chernoff and Louis Goldberg are important for not only leading Messianic organizations, but also formulating a distinctive theology. When Chernoff presided over the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (1971-1975), its self-understanding shifted toward Messianic Judaism rather than Hebrew Christianity, a development that helps frame the broader trajectory of the relationship of its believers to both Christianity and Judaism. Lastly, the organization Jews for Jesus had a large impact on Messianic Judaism through its evangelical theology and missionary focus. The rival organization Jews for Judaism was founded by Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz in 1985 to counter Jews for Jesus’s influence on Judaism.

Congregacion de Yahweh, a Messianic Jewish congregation- Flickr- photo by Hobo Matt (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Jews for Jesus- Flickr- photo by d-q (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Joseph Rabinowitz portrait- Internet Archive- from The Jewish Era, vol 2 (1893)

Messianic seal- Wikimedia Commons

Baruch Hashem Messianic Synagogue, Dallas TX - photo by CowboyWisdom at English Wikipedia
Book/Journal Source(s)
Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Web Source(s)
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.
Web Page Contributor
Christopher W. Howell

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