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An Outline of Jewish Christianity

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

The Need for Reexamination

On Novermber 6 the Tampa Bay Times reported that the pastor of a church in Florida posted a sign outside his church on election day. The sign said: “Don’t vote for Democrats on Tuesday and sing, ‘Oh how I love Jesus’ on Sunday.”

The pastor’s sign typifies the spiritual anomaly we are now witnessing in the United States. In the name of Christ, Christians (many of them) are justifying a President and a political party whose agenda has included:

Many seem to believe these are the Christian things to do.

This agenda could not have been elected without the enthusiastic support of the American Evangelical Christian community - who give their support in the name of Christ! Certainly enough time has passed for the values of this President and his allies in the executive and legislative (and now also the judicial) branches to be no secret. Yet Evangelical Christians’ support for this regime has not wavered.

But, they may say, all of this is outweighed by the abortion issue. (And also by the right of businesses not to bake wedding cakes for gay couples.) We are pro-life, they say, and what could be more important than that?

This is sheer hypocrisy. You cannot be pro-life and elect people who believe in the unrestricted availability of firearms, especially resulting in the deaths of large numbers of schoolchildren. You cannot be pro-life and condone the traumatic separation of young children from their parents, separations that in many cases will become permanent, inflicting deep scars that will last a lifetime. And as for being pro-life, abortions are already so restricted in conservative states that even overturning Roe vs. Wade, which is unlikely, would make little practical difference. Yet this is taken to justify the series of abuses and disruption of peoples’ lives enumerated above.

Supporting such policies in the name of Christianity is a disgrace and a desecration. Yet this is the dominant form of Christianity in North America today. And it is not the first time Christianity has been used to enable human rights abuses.

There is therefore still a need to rethink the meaning of Christianity and the Christian message. Today’s dominant form of Christianity is not the only form that ever existed. It just succeeded in defeating the others and winning the endorsement of governments and church councils. Once one form of Christianity acquired political power, it became able to suppress all the others. At least until modern times.

Christianity changed direction very early on, as Jesus’s teaching of self-transcending love became overshadowed by fear (especially of damnation). Salvation replaced service as the highest Christian concern. This was not so in the time and in the teachings of Jesus. Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew, taught as a Jew, and died as a Jew, even as the “King of the Jews.” Jesus was a Jewish reformer. He did not intend to found a new religion. He wanted to return Judaism to its true spirit, as expressed by the Hebrew prophets who inspired him. But many soon forgot this, and Christianity took some theological turns that made possible the abuses we see today and at many other times in its history. These problems arise when Christianity cuts itself off from its Jewish roots.

We will need to explore in detail exactly what this means. It does not mean that one must be Jewish in order to become Christian. It does mean that the full significance of Christianity becomes apparent only when Jesus is appreciated within his Jewish context.

An Important Consideration

In developing this idea it is important to avoid oversimplification. Advocating for a Jewish Christianity does not mean that non-Jewish Christians are necessarily “doing it wrong.” In spite of the excesses of Evangelicalism, many Christians of all kinds live lives exemplifying Christly values and bringing light into the world. Fortunately Christianity has preserved Jesus’s life and teachings in the New Testament Gospels, and their influence persists in spite of all the theological overlay that developed through the centuries obscuring what Jesus taught in them. Christianity is very diverse, and many Christian churches do faithfully stand for true Christly values; we just need many more of them, together with the rediscovery of a Christianity that respects other religions because it has no need to consider itself the only path to salvation.

This point is critical: even generally heathy, vibrant forms of Christianity beholden to the orthodox tradition still carry a dark side that can erupt at any time in various forms and degrees of intolerance. Jewish Christianity, properly understood, is not another form of Evangelical Christianity (as is today’s “Messianic Judaism”); it is an endeavor to return to the original spirit and teachings of Jesus Christ so that Christianity will no longer remain capable of allying itself with social and human rights abuses as it has throughout history and as its most prevalent forms are doing now. More positively, Jewish Christianity, by focusing on Jesus’s original message, supports Christians and others of different faiths (even secular humanists!) who are working to fulfill Christ’s calling to realize the messianic era on earth.

The Changing Christian Ideal

If G.K. Chesterton is correct that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult, and left untried” one must wonder why God would have given people a religion that, despite many attempts, no one has been able to try for over two thousand years.

Chesterton’s statement is not quite fair. Throughout history there have been, and are today, people who lead their lives in the true spirit of Christ, whose faith grows from their selfless love for and service to others. But if we look at Christianity from the broad perspective of history, this is not always what we find. Today in America, religious forces are joining the push down a path that could hardly be less Christlike.

How is this possible? What happened?

What happened was that Jesus’s message was radically changed, and not long after his death. We can see this change in the difference between these two passages:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” (Luke 10:25-28)

The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:29-31)
These two passages encapsulate the difference between Jesus’s reform and mainstream Christianity as it began to take shape. Jesus preached the realization of God’s presence through self-transcending love and service to others. But as Christianity gradually became formalized, the emphasis shifted to the assurance of personal salvation. Concern about the fate of the self replaced the love of others as religion’s highest priority.

The word “salvation” has an interesting history. The Hebrew Bible uses the word yeshu’a to mean deliverance from one’s enemies, or from some physical danger. That is also how the Greek equivalent, sotería, is generally used in the Synoptic Gospels. In John and in Paul salvation seems to take on an eschatological meaning, but is still not clearly defined. Even in the passage from Acts just quoted, the word “saved” does not specify saved from what. As Christian theology developed, a more definite soteriology of rescue from everlasting torment in hell through acceptance of the divinity of Christ and his substitutionary sacrifice evolved. But this is not something Jesus taught.

The beginnings of this evolution are apparent in the writings of Paul. When Paul preached the Gospel to the gentiles, he did not use Jesus’s teachings as a selling point. Only once in his preserved writings does Paul quote a known saying of Jesus directly, about the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:23-25). And at one point in Acts (20:35) Luke has Paul quoting Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” although this quotation is not independently attested. That’s it. What Paul does regularly is to present Jesus as the Messiah through whose suffering, death, and resurrection our sins are forgiven. This teaching appealed to a pagan audience used to divine figures coming to earth, interacting with humans, and even suffering. Also not unusual to this audience were distinguished human figures ascending to heaven and becoming divine beings after their death. But it made no sense at all to Paul’s Jewish audience. To them, the Messiah’s function was to “save” them from their enemies (not from sin), and to establish God’s kingdom on earth, thus transforming the world. Jesus did not do any of that. In addition, Jews did not need a Messiah to achieve their forgiveness through his suffering and death on a cross. Judaism already had a mechanism of repentance and forgiveness, which Jews practiced annually during the preparation for and observance of the Day of Atonement.

Paul represents the first stage in the change of the Christian ideal. He states: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). This is quite a contrast from the response Jesus gave to the question of how to enter eternal life.

While traces of the shift in the Christian ideal are evident in Paul, it took a while (though not a very long while) for it to develop fully. Paul preached the primacy of faith in Christ’s resurrection, but he did not talk about hell. Yet we do find descriptions of hell as the consequence for lack of faith in Christ as early as the second century. Second Clement, a writing from the Apostolic Fathers, mentions the hell we are familiar with:

And the unbelievers will see his glory and might, and they will be astonished when they see that the kingdom of the world belongs to Jesus, saying, “Woe to us, because it was you, and we did not realize it, nor did we believe; and we did not obey the elders when they spoke to us about our salvation.” And their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched, and they will be a spectacle for all flesh. He refers to that day of judgment, when people will see those among us who have lived ungodly lives and perverted the commandments of Jesus Christ. But the righteous, having done well and endured torments and hated the pleasures of the soul, when they see how those who have gone astray and denied Jesus by their words or by their actions are being punished with dreadful torments in unquenchable fire, will give glory to their God as they say, “There will be hope for the one who has served God fully from the heart.” (2 Clement 17:5-7, trans. Michael Holmes)

And later, in the fourth century, Augustine wrote in the City of God:

But that hell, which also is called a lake of fire and brimstone, will be material fire, and will torment the bodies of the damned, whether men or devils…. One fire certainly shall be the lot of both, for thus the truth has declared. (City of God XXI:10, ed. Philip Schaff)

Augustine did much to publicize the notion of a torturous hell for nonbelievers, writing at length about fire and pain and torment almost as if he savored it. Jesus never taught anything remotely similar to this. This idea of hell for nonbelievers developed after the New Testament, but not long after. The early church fathers borrowed imagery from intertestamental apocalypticism, using it to embellish their visions of the proper reward and punishment for those who believe and those who don’t.

So we can trace the broad outlines of this change at the heart of Christianity: While not abandoning Christ’s teachings, Paul shifted the emphasis away from them to acceptance of Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection as the path to a rather undefined “salvation.” The orthodox theologians who succeeded him made the nature of this salvation and its loss much more explicit. Eventually this idea of faith as determining eternal bliss or suffering became solidified in creeds, confessions, and catechisms, and came to define the Christian religion.

This shift in the Christian ideal, from serving God through selflessly loving others to securing personal salvation through proper faith, became entrenched early in the history of the church. It is known as “proto-orthodoxy” (Ehrman) when referring to the period before the Council of Nicaea, after which it was adopted as the orthodox view. During the period of proto-orthodoxy there existed a wide diversity of Christian thought. The first Christians were, in fact, Jewish Christians. Today most people think of “Jewish Christian” as a contradiction (although we will have something to say about “Messianic Judaism” below). But before the early church councils, forms of Jewish Christianity did exist. Those who constituted the Jerusalem church, led by James and Peter, were Jewish Christians.

Once proto-orthodoxy became established as the orthodox view, it could no longer tolerate this diversity. Other forms of Christianity were condemned as heresies, and we have voluminous writings from early Christian apologists denouncing them. This development was inevitable. The orthodox view maintained that since Adam’s fall humanity became thoroughly corrupt, deserving everlasting punishment in hell, so needed Christ’s atoning sacrifice to save it from this fate. The stakes do not get any higher. So any Christian view that deviated from these central tenets had to be excoriated and suppressed, lest the faithful be led astray towards a path of eternal destruction.

Getting the “right” Christian view was now a matter of life and death of eternal proportions. So even violence became justified in the name of the “Prince of Peace,” and Christian history is riddled with it. Once Christianity acquired political power through establishment as the official religion of the Roman Empire, its ability to enforce its views greatly increased. Heretics - meaning those who dissented from the orthodox view - were persecuted, tortured, and murdered in various gruesome ways. The Protestant Reformation did not put an end to this doctrinal exclusivity and intolerance; rather, it presented a different form of this salvation-based religion and even radicalized it, making good works (including service to others) not only irrelevant but even contemptible as far as securing a right relationship with God. Only faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice could effect the reconciliation necessary to save one from hell.

Only this shift in the Christian paradigm, from love to self, from service to salvation, could make possible all the violence committed in the name of Christ between those whose beliefs about Christ and salvation differed. If something in the orthodox view made killing and torturing nonbelievers seem acceptable, one must wonder how those who approved it and practiced it ever thought they were following the footsteps of Christ.

Defining Christianity this new way cast Jews as an especially dangerous threat. The orthodox Christian view cannot grant legitimacy to Judaism, because if members of Jesus’s own people could be saved without accepting him as the incarnate God who died for their sins, then Christ’s sacrifice would have been totally unnecessary and Christian faith would be a hoax. This is the root of Christian anti-Semitism. Orthodox Christian theology led to a necessary and relentless persecution of Jews. Jews’ refusal to place their faith in Christ was an unforgivable desecration, and Jews were even accused of killing Christ - this charge goes as far back as the New Testament itself (1 Thessalonians 2:15).

Once the question of heaven and hell assumed primacy, fear began to replace love at the center of the religion. A religion based upon the procurement of salvation (and the avoidance of hell) made it imperative that only the proper way of attaining salvation be accepted. Religious authorities used the fear of divine rejection and everlasting punishment to control people and empower themselves, and by the Middle Ages popes acquired power even to rival kings. This fear justified the persecution of heretics and the elimination of their views and beliefs. One of these “heresies” was Jewish Christianity.

The Earliest Christianity

Already in the New Testament we find tension between Paul and Jewish Christians. One specific group whom Paul especially opposed were the “Judaizers,” Jewish Christians who believed that gentiles had to convert to Judaism in order to join the church community. But elsewhere Paul appears to question the usefulness of Jewish law itself. According to Acts, Paul acquired a reputation for this. Members of the Jerusalem church confronted him: “You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs” (Acts 21:20-21). Paul’s relationship to Judaism was complicated, but that of those who followed him was much less so.

During Paul’s time the Jewish Christians were led by James, the brother of Jesus, and their legitimacy was not in question. It was actually the gentiles who had to fight for acceptance as members of the community. As more gentiles joined the Christian community, largely due to Paul’s influence, the situation reversed. If, according to the orthodox view, we are saved by the atoning death and resurrection of Christ, then the Jewish law can have no relevance to our salvation and must be ruled out of Christian life. This reasoning of course made no sense to most Jews, since Jews then and now do not think of “salvation” that way. As noted earlier, “salvation” (yeshu’a) meant rescue from one’s enemies in this life, not from hell after we die. The accusation that Jews require the observance of Jewish law in order to be spared from hell would strike most Jews as incoherent. Nevertheless, continuing to observe Jewish practices after becoming a Christian came to be considered a heresy.

Most of our knowledge of the early heresies does not come from original sources, since those works were suppressed. We know of those writings primarily from the Christian apologists who wrote condemning them and who often quoted from them. This means we cannot get a full picture of the heretical writers’ thoughts and beliefs, since only fragments of their original teachings survive. We know specifically about early Jewish Christians mainly from the polemics of Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Epiphanius, from which we can piece together a general impression.

Early Jewish Christians were known by two names, “Nazarenes” and “Ebionites,” and there is some disagreement as to whether these terms refer to the same group or to two different sects. “Nazarene” means a person from Nazareth (not to be confused with “nazirite,” a completely different word referring to one dedicated to specific religious practices beyond those of general obligation). “Ebionites” is an anglicization of the Hebrew ebyonim, meaning “poor ones,” probably originally a humble self-designation that was later used by some Christian writers to disparage them.

There was some variation in belief among these early Jewish Christians, not surprising considering the diversity of thought in the very early Christian world. Some were closer to proto-orthodoxy, believing in the divinity of Jesus and the virgin birth. But the Ebionites are commonly associated with a more traditional Jewish view of Jesus and his ministry. They were characterized by the following:

This sounds a lot like the Jerusalem church immediately after Jesus, and that we know from Acts. The leader of the church was James. The members of the church observed Jewish practices and expected gentile converts to do likewise. And there is a marked absence of theological doctrines that arose after the time of Jesus, such as the virgin birth and Jesus’s divinity. So Ebionite Christianity actually reflects the earliest Christianity, making quite ironic the fact that it later was condemned as heretical.

These Ebionite beliefs do have some foundation. Anyone with some knowledge of Hebrew will know that the word almah in Isaiah 14:7 means “young woman” and cannot be faithfully translated as “virgin,” for which there is an entirely different Hebrew word. When Matthew quoted that verse he was using the Greek Septuagint, which has the word parthenos, which in Greek can mean young woman but most commonly does mean virgin. It would not occur to Jews reading their scriptures in Hebrew that Isaiah was referring to a virgin, nor even to the Messiah, given the full context of the passage, which has nothing to do with messianic times.

It may also come as a surprise to many that the divinity of Jesus is not a New Testament teaching. Nowhere in the New Testament is Jesus himself called “God.” In the Synoptic Gospels it is clear that Jesus is a human being with human frailties; sometimes he is even called the “Son of Man,” the representative human being. God knows things that Jesus does not know (Matthew 24:36). God’s will and Jesus’s will are not necessarily the same: “not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Even the Gospel of John with its high Christology draws a distinction between Jesus and the “only true” God:

“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)

“The Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing.” (John 5:19)

“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.” (John 6:38)

“My teaching is not mine but his who sent me.” (John 7:16)

“I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30); “I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me.” (John 8:28)

“For I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak.” (John 12:49)

At one point Thomas does utter an exclamation “My Lord and my God!” but this interjection is hardly a foundation on which to build a doctrine of Jesus’s divinity. Whatever Thomas may have meant by this utterance, it comes from a follower of Jesus and not from Jesus himself.

Paul makes a similar distinction, always calling Jesus “Lord” but never “God”: “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6). Both the Greek kyrios and the Hebrew adón need not mean “Lord” in the sense of God, but can mean “lord” as “master,” as of a household - see e.g. Mark 13:35. So even for Paul, only God is God.

Nevertheless, the Ebionites did not consider Jesus just an ordinary human being. He was the most righteous person ever to have lived, and his faithfulness to God’s law was perfect. Therefore, through Jesus one could discern the very nature of God.

So we can observe key differences between Ebionite Christianity and orthodox Christianity as endorsed by the church councils and enshrined in the creeds. The form of Christianity that eventually won the competition between the early diverse views was the Christianity prevalent in Rome. Roman Christianity had the great advantage of being endorsed by the Roman Emperors Constantine (who legalized it) and Theodosius (who established it). The Council of Nicaea, convened under Constantine’s watch, decided the question of which view of Christianity should be accepted and which ones were heresies. The majority of Roman Christians were gentiles, who had no interest in shouldering the burden of Jewish observance (especially circumcision), and who came from a religious background where it was not unusual to consider human beings who were divine.

Jewish Christianity Today

First, a word on terminology. In my book and on this web site I use the term “Judeochristianity” to refer to a perspective on the Bible, on theology, and on life that results from seeing Jesus’s ministry and teachings as continuous with Hebrew prophecy. It is meant to be accessible to Christians, Jews, and anyone else who is seeking a spiritual life. “Jewish Christianity,” on the other hand, is an approach to Christianity that seeks to connect Christianity to its Jewish roots.

Jewish Christianity today does not ask for a return to Ebionism; that would indeed be an unfortunate anachronism. The Christian message is universal, and not limited to Jews as the Ebionites believed. But it is important that a form of Jewish Christianity continue to exist, to remind Christians of the Jewish roots of their religion and to call attention back to the heart of Jesus, which is the fulfillment of the law through selfless love to God and others. When Jesus said we can enter eternal life through loving God completely (Deuteronomy 6:5) and one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18), he called it “the Law and the Prophets.” That is how the Jewish scriptures were known at his time. Jesus distilled the essence of this law, or torah, into these two universal commandments, which come from the Hebrew scriptures. Any Christianity that does not conform to those commandments is not faithful to Jesus. Jewish Christianity is just one of many Christian voices, and its purpose is to preserve the awareness that the salvific teachings of Jesus grew from the “Law and the Prophets” and would not exist without that foundation. Christianity is essentially Jewish in its origin and its true message. Jewish Christianity exists as a reminder of the importance of preserving that connection.

If Jewish Christianity stands for anything, it stands for this: we do not enter eternal life through any creed or doctrine or particularized form of faith. We enter eternal life the way Jesus himself taught us: through non-self-interested love.

Therefore “salvation,” however one understands it (and Jewish Christianity does not understand it as escape from irrevocable and everlasting torment in hell), is open not just to Christians only. It is open to anyone who follows Christ’s commandments, whether or not they have even heard of or even believe in Christ. An ethical and kind-hearted atheist will have a higher place in heaven than a self-professed and self-righteous Christian. Anyone who doubts this should read Jesus’s own words in the Gospels.

While Jewish Christianity is not Ebionism, they are conected in that Jewish Christianity tries to come closer to the beliefs of the original Christians. Jewish Christianity does accept the entire New Testament (the Ebionites recognized only the Gospel of Matthew). And while it does have a special affinity for James, it does not completely reject Paul. Paul himself was greatly misunderstood (see my Commentary on Romans on this web site). Nevertheless, there are still problems in Paul. His evident hostility towards Judaism and his harsh condemnation of Jews who did not become Christians has served neither him nor history well. Saying that “a veil lies over their minds” when Jews hear the Torah (2 Corinthians 3:15), calling Jews “objects of wrath prepared for destruction” (Romans 9:22) and “enemies of God” (Romans 11:28), saying Jews “killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets” (1 Thessalonians 2:15), all diminish Paul’s stature as a divinely inspired spiritual writer. Paul was a human being, with human limitations and flaws, whose writings happened to become canonized as sacred scripture. While Jewish Christianity can respect Paul and learn from him, it cannot give his words the same authority as the words of Christ.

What then about Christ? While Jesus Christ was not himself God, neither was he just an ordinary human being. As the earliest Jewish Christians believed, Jesus became infused with the Spirit of God at his baptism, and this Spirit spoke through him and acted through him all during his ministry and through the end of his life. There will be more to say about Christology in Part 2. For now, it is enough to say that while Jesus was indeed a human being, he also became the incarnate presence of God on earth by virtue of the Spirit that acted through him and made God’s nature visible to human sense. The “Word made flesh” still has very real meaning.

”Messianic Judaism”

Before concluding this section one thing needs to be clarified. Jewish Christianity will, inevitably and unfortunately, be confused with “Messianic Judaism,” a self-proclaimed sect of Judaism that preaches Jesus as the Messiah. It is a modern development and is not Jewish Christianity in any historical sense. While it claims to be Judaism, it accepts the tenets of Evangelical Christianity and is really a disguised form of it. This includes theological overlays not original with Jesus, such as the belief that salvation is possible only through acceptance of Jesus as Lord, God, and Savior. Like all forms of Evangelical Christianity it supports missionizing efforts, and often directs them particularly to Jews.

There is very little similarity between Messianic Judaism and the Jewish Christianity presented here. Messianic Judaism claims to be Judaism. Jewish Christianity does not. Messianic Judaism presents itself as the only true religion and path to salvation, especially for Jews. Jewish Christianity respects Judaism as a valid path to God and opposes proselytizing and missionizing efforts directed towards Jews. Such activity shows profound disrespect towards Jews and the Jewish faith and must be repudiated. Jewish Christianity also rejects theological additions to Christianity that conflict with Jesus’s Jewish tradition, such as atonement theology and the insistence that the only path to salvation is through orthodox Christian belief. These issues will be treated in greater detail in Part 2.

Jewish Christianity is not Judaism. It is Christianity that recognizes and honors its Jewish roots. Because Jewish Christianity respects Judaism, it does not call itself Judaism. Jewish Christianity is not restricted to people who are ethnically Jewish, but people who are Jewish and who embrace this form of Christianity are welcome still to consider themselves Jews. It was that way in the beginning. It can be so now. The distinguishing characteristic of Jewish Christianity is not the ancestry of Jewish Christians, but the placement of Jesus within his Jewish context and the affirmation of the continuity between his teachings and Hebrew prophecy. Jewish Christianity holds primary the fulfillment of the law through self-transcending love, rather than preoccupation with individual salvation.

We still have many questions to consider, including why accept Jesus as Messiah to begin with. In the next section we will elaborate the principles of Jewish Christianity in the form of questions and answers concerning central aspects of the Christian faith.

December 2018