Judeochristianity Jewish star Christian cross

A Personal Statement of Faith

What It Means to Be a Jewish Christian

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

  1. The Meaning of Salvation
  2. Jesus and the Kingdom
  3. The Significance of the Kingdom
  4. Relationship of Jewish Christianity to Christian Orthodoxy
  5. Relationship of Jewish Christianity to Judaism
  6. Conclusion: The Need for Theological Reform
  7. One Last Word

I can’t call myself a Jewish Christian without immediately getting myself into trouble. People will inevitably and understandably make the wrong assumptions. After all, aren’t Jewish Christians certain Jews who have converted to a form of Christianity indistinguishable from Evangelicalism but who still call themselves Jews, and whose mission it is to convert the rest of the Jewish people to their way of thinking? That is decidedly what I am not.

The “Hebrew Christians,” “Messianic Jews,” or “Jews for Jesus” of today are a relatively modern invention. These are Jews who have adopted the contemporary Evangelical tradition. What I stand for is a form of Jewish Christianity closer to the original Jewish Christianity before the “parting of the ways.” Today it is considered impossible for someone to be both Jewish and Christian, but the earliest Christians were in fact Jews, and they, Jesus included, valued their Judaism.

How we understand Jewish Christianity, and indeed Christianity itself, will depend on what we take to be the Christian message. The words “gospel,” from Old English, or “evangel,” from the Greek, both literally mean “good news.” What is this “good news”? An “evangelical” approach might put it this way: We are all sinners. We cannot help it. We all require salvation. But there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. We are in need of a Savior, who is Jesus Christ. He atoned for our sins through his death on the cross, and paid the price for all of us. And by his resurrection he overcame the powers of sin and death. Therefore, if we are to escape everlasting punishment, we must accept Jesus Christ as our Lord, Savior, and even God, or his atonement will not cover us. The “good news” is that there is an escape from the endless torment that we all deserve, and that is faith in Christ.

I do not believe this is the true Christian message. I have given my reasons in two other articles, “Did Christ Die for Our Sins?” and “Do Nonbelievers Go to Hell?” Right now I would like to focus on what attracted me to Christianity, which is something totally different. I do so because I strongly believe the Christian message needs a different articulation. I will conclude with what I believe to be the real Christian message, the real “good news,” but I need to lay some groundwork first.

The Meaning of Salvation

Too many Christian evangelizers are using the wrong method. They use fear to sell Christianity: Accept Jesus Christ or your sins won’t be forgiven and you will be punished eternally. This is the wrong approach. It sends a message not of a God of love and forgiveness, but of vindictiveness and cruelty. Protesting such a God in the name of genuine love would become a moral imperative.

Jesus did not use that approach. The best record we have of Jesus’s ministry and teachings is contained in the Synoptic Gospels. (I have dealt with John’s Gospel in my papers “Do Nonbelievers Go to Hell?” and “Jesus and the Christ Angel.”) In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus’s message is clear. The kingdom of God is close at hand. We need to prepare for it. And this requires repentance, as well as treating each other with love and compassion. That is the standard; not what you believe about Jesus. “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32).

People often wonder: What is so different or special about the Holy Spirit? Aren’t Jesus and the Holy Spirit coequal members of the Trinity? Why is blaspheming one forgivable, but the other not?

We need to remember that there is no doctrine of the Trinity in the Gospels; that came later. The Holy Spirit is not a separate entity distinct from “God the Father”; it is the voice of God as it speaks to human beings. To deny the Holy Spirit means to set oneself up against God and against God’s goodness, love, and justice, always choosing ego instead. That is what gets one into trouble. Compared to that, recognizing Jesus Christ specifically as God’s messenger is of secondary importance. Attempting to understand this passage through the extrabiblical doctrine of the Trinity has confused people for ages, but when seen in this light Jesus’s meaning becomes clear.

We tend to forget, and many modern readers are not even aware, that New Testament theology is rooted in first-century Jewish apocalypticism. The phrase “kingdom of God” (or the more Jewish version “kingdom of heaven” used in Matthew) is part of that theology. Apocalyptic theology grew out of the experience of a people long time oppressed and crying out for justice. Its many expressions in New Testament times tended to include these common elements:

People at the time who subscribed to this theology believed that they would live to see this final judgment. And so repentance before it came was an urgent necessity. This is why John the Baptist was so eager to spread his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And why Paul was so anxious to propagate the message of belief in Christ and his resurrection throughout the empire. They believed the judgment was imminent, and so tried to save as many from it as possible.

This is where our popular notion of “salvation” comes from. In the Hebrew Bible, salvation is of this world: it meant rescue from persecution by one’s enemies or from natural disasters. For Paul, who was an apocalypticist and who expected the end to arrive shortly, it meant something entirely different. Salvation for Paul did not mean what it meant throughout most of the Hebrew Bible, nor did it mean what today most Christians mean by “salvation” (escape from an endless hell after we die). For Paul, salvation meant delivery from God’s negative final judgment of sinners expected at the close of the age. Jesus’s resurrection was especially significant because, according to Paul, it was the “first fruits” of the general resurrection soon to follow. In other words, it was the beginning of the general resurrection. The first stage of the end time had already arrived. Jesus showed us what it meant to escape God’s judgment. And, according to Paul, we like Jesus can escape judgment and rise to eternal life by joining Christ in his death and resurrection and accepting his lordship. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).

But then something happened, or rather, didn’t happen. The final judgment never came. And that was a serious blow to apocalypticism. Even in the New Testament there are attempts to deal with this delay: Mark thought the end was already arriving (“the Lord... has cut short those days,” Mark 13:20), but Luke said not to expect it just yet (“but the end will not follow immediately,” Luke 21:9; “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled,” Luke 21:24). If these Gospel apocalypses do in fact refer to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the year 70, Mark saw that event as a sign of the end, but Luke, writing later and after the end was expected to happen, did not. In First Thessalonians Paul assures his followers that they will live to see the end. In Second Thessalonians, later than Paul and not written by him, there is a delay. But the hope was always that the delay would not be long.

Nevertheless, the delay has lasted, for two thousand years and counting. This means that Paul’s belief that the end time had already begun was mistaken. The end clearly is not yet. Apocalypticism as a theology has been discredited, except for those diehards who still use the Bible, especially Daniel and Revelation, to predict when the end will come (and they have always been wrong but still keep trying). And so both the resurrection and salvation became detached from their origins in Jewish apocalypticism. Christ’s resurrection was no longer thought a sign of the end but a singular event in history, possible because of his assumed divinity, and salvation became detached from its connection to the eschatological event and evolved into an escape from a fearful interminable hell. This is how popular Christianity with its doctrine of “Believe or else” came about. It is an artifact of a dead apocalypticism, and is completely unfaithful to what Jesus lived and taught.

Jesus was very explicit about what leads to eternal life, and it is not a matter of what we believe. It is the two Great Commandments: Love the Lord (which I take to mean love the goodness that God creates and wills), and your neighbor as yourself. It is the love you show, expressed in the actions you perform for “the least of these” in God’s creation, that attracts God’s favor. “Faith alone,” the cry of the Protestant Reformation, has no basis in the Synoptic Gospels (and is questionable in the rest of the New Testament as well). I don’t think Jesus would recognize that idea. Jesus called us to follow him not just in words or thoughts but in deeds and in service.

These considerations bring to the fore a need to redefine salvation. While there is a final judgment, as Jesus told us there would be, salvation will not be from a grotesque and hideous hell conjured in apocalyptic visions. It is better to think of salvation in positive terms. Salvation means that one’s life, here and in eternity, is determined by God and the goodness of God, and not by the accidents of this world. When we say that Jesus came to bring us salvation, this is what I believe it should mean.

And here is a great irony: we may be saved without knowing it! We may be beset by doubts and fears, but if we are devoted to pursuing God’s goodness and, as best we can, embodying it as Christ did, we are already God’s own. We have done what God asks of us, and that is all that matters: love of God and love of God’s creatures. And so Jesus told us to “seek first the kingdom of God” and then we will find fulfillment. That is what brings us to salvation. And notice that Jesus said “seek.” We do not need to accomplish it all in this short life. We just need to be seekers, headed in the right direction, with the “Two Great Commandments” as our highest priority and our ultimate concern. It is then that God’s goodness, and not our own machinations, determines the course of our lives.

Jesus and the Kingdom

John the Baptist was an apocalyptic prophet. He expected a cataclysmic end to arrive very shortly: hence the urgency of repentance. Paul, too, was in his own way an apocalyptic prophet. He expected to see the end within his lifetime (1 Thessalonians 4, 1 Corinthians 15). Was Jesus?

Jesus too preached an urgent need to repent: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ’Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 4:17). But did he mean the same thing? Some scholars consider Jesus to have been no more than an apocalyptic prophet like all the others. While Jesus was certainly influenced by Jewish apocalypticism, I think this assessment is reductionistic, discounts the significance of Jesus’s teaching, and is ultimately wrong. Jesus took the language of the kingdom, current in the theology of his time, and redefined and transformed it. No apocalypticist spoke of the kingdom the way Jesus did. And that makes all the difference.

For a typical apocalypticist, the coming of the kingdom is a violent and cataclysmic event on a grandiose scale. It engulfs everyone and everything, bringing great destruction before the final redemption. This is not how Jesus spoke of the kingdom. While he did recognize this world as temporary and passing away, to be replaced by something better after a time of trial, his view of the kingdom was radically different from other apocalypticists, and has escaped many theologians as well.

This is what Jesus says about the kingdom:

How amazing is that? No true apocalypticist ever spoke of the kingdom that way. Jesus takes traditional apocalyptic language and turns it upside down. The kingdom of God is not a huge cataclysm: it is a mustard seed. It will not arrive with a violent clash of opposing forces: on the contrary, we may not even notice it. The kingdom of God will make more sense to little children than to seasoned warriors. The kingdom of God is not off in some remote future, nor even in the immediate future. In fact, it is already here, right in our midst.

The following vignette shows us how Jesus understood the kingdom:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ - this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question. (Matthew 12:28-34)

You are not far from the kingdom of God. I am not aware of any apocalypticist who described the kingdom this way: it is not a cosmic battle; it is defined by the love of God and neighbor. It is not a clash of massive forces; one can even approach it as an individual. This is nothing less than a radical redefinition of the theology of his time.

And here is yet another instance:

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)

What traditional apocalypticist ever conceived of the kingdom in this way? This vision of the kingdom is much closer to Isaiah than to first-century apocalypticism: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” Jesus’s portrayal of the kingdom makes no sense within the context of the apocalyptic theology of his time, but it makes perfect sense within the prophetic worldview of his precursor, Isaiah.

At this point I might expect an objection: All these passages notwithstanding, didn’t Jesus also predict the end in traditional apocalyptic terms? There is one chapter in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21), known as the "little apocalypse," in which Jesus sounds as frighteningly ominous as any apocalypticist of his time. The description of the kingdom’s arrival in these chapters is certainly at odds with everything we have so far observed. Here we find predictions of mass destruction, “wars and rumors of wars,” battles between the nations, earthquakes and famines, and very much else. This hardly seems to fit with the subtle vision of the kingdom we have seen elsewhere in these Gospels. This puzzled me for a long time. I will come to it later. But first we need to consider what exactly Jesus does teach us about the kingdom.

The Significance of the Kingdom

For Jesus, the kingdom is an unseen yet present reality. It is a different way to be. It is a hidden, yet powerful dimension of existence. It shows us that the natural world, with all its pain and tragedy, is not the only reality, and does not have the final word concerning our destiny. Another name for this kingdom is eternal life.

In short, Jesus’s message of the kindgom is that eternal life is redemptive, and it is real. This is what attracted me to Christianity, not any particular doctrine and not threats of hell. The way Jesus embraced both his life and his death demonstrated in concrete form the message of Hebrew prophecy: that we can face the worst life has to offer and still find God, the source of goodness, present with us in the end.

No other theologian has described this as well as Paul Tillich. In The Shaking of the Foundations, in his sermon “We Live in Two Orders,” he speaks of “two orders of being: the human, political, historical order, and the divine, eternal order.” He adds, “The human order, the order of history, is primarily the order of growing and dying.” But that is not all. There is something else: “The order beyond the order of history is the divine order.” The divine order reverses the human order: the weak become strong and the last become first. And even in the greatest depths of the pain of the human order, the divine order appears: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

The good news (evangelion) that Jesus brought is first, that this divine order exists, and further, that the human order (time) and the divine order (eternity) are not separate from each other. As Tillich puts it:

[T]he two orders, the historical and the eternal, although they can never become the same, are within each other. The historical order is not separated from the eternal order. What is new in the prophets and in Christianity, beyond all paganism, old and new, is that the eternal order reveals itself in the historical order.

This means there is always a possibility for us to experience a belongingness to an order outside the one in which we suffer. In that second order (which is actually the first) we are redeemed, and nothing of spiritual value in our lives perishes; all of it is recorded in eternal life (Matthew 6:20). This, according to Christ, is the truth of our existence, although we do not always know it. But it is not beyond our reach. “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). Clearly Jesus did not mean, strive first for that cataclysmic wave of destruction. That would have been a call to zealotry. No, Jesus meant us to recognize and to value the divine order of existence, to pray for it and seek to know it as our most essential truth.

To me, this is what being a Christian means. It is recognizing Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the messenger designated by God to bring to us in its fullest clarity the message that eternity is real and that we are a part of it. He did this both in his teaching and in his being. He embodied – he incarnated – in his life and in his ministry the qualities we associate with the divine, in particular unadulterated non-self-interested love. It is in this sense that Jesus could say “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). It is in this sense that we can say that Jesus as the Christ represented God’s presence on earth. There can be no better news than this.

Understanding the relationship of these two orders helps us appreciate the full power of the Gospel message. Jesus, as a human being, suffered some of the worst things one can experience in this life: rejection, condemnation, and a tortured and agonizing premature death. A message of faith, to be truly effective, must address these extremes of human experience. And so Jesus said “that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering” (Mark 8:31).

There is much controversy surrounding the title “Son of Man.” One way to understand it is that when Jesus identifies with that term, he does so as the representative of humanity: the essence of the human as created in the image of God, and also the suffering that is inevitably part of human life. Jesus embraced the fate attached to being human, and worked through all its agony until he found the ultimate realization of his connection to eternity. This is the “Comforter” he wants to send us: an accompanying presence allowing us to know that, whatever we must go through in this life, we are part of eternity, and that since eternity is not separate from our human existence, we can always hope to see it manifest in our human experience.

So what about the apocalyptic passages in the Gospels? It was only after I began studying the New Testament in its original Greek that I understood how to deal with them. I had been reading through the Gospel of Mark in Greek, and when I got to chapter 13, the "Marcan Apocalypse" with its prophecies of doom, I felt struck by something strange. This Greek did not sound like the Greek in the rest of the Gospel, in which Jesus speaks plainly and simply. The change was subtle, but I thought noticeable. The Greek in this chapter sounds different, more complicated, as if coming from a different speaker. The translations do not really capture this, but the following may provide an idea:

“But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains.” (Mark 13:14)

This just does not sound like Jesus. Not only are the style and vocabulary different as in the rest of this chapter, but Jesus wrote nothing and did not even have readers! It was not his style to tell his hearers to read things. This is not the voice of Jesus, but of Mark.

After doing some research, I discovered that many scholars do not believe the apocalyptic chapters in the three Synoptics actually go back to Jesus. They point to passages like this one:

“As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them.” (Mark 13:9)

This passage seems anachronistic. It refers to events that occurred years after Jesus died. It does not speak to the situation in his own time. It would have made more sense to Mark’s contemporaries than to Jesus’s original listeners. Thus many scholars conclude that these are not Jesus’s original words, and I agree with those scholars.

If we add this conclusion to our observations of how Jesus actually did speak about the kingdom, the implications are profound. Jesus was not a traditional apocalypticist. His message came more from the Hebrew prophets than from first-century apocalypticists (like John the Baptist). He was far ahead of his time - and also ours - in understanding God’s relation to the world. Seeing Jesus this way, I feel no need to figure out how a first-century apocalyptic framework fits into our own (as some strands of theology still try to do). Instead, I just marvel at what Jesus actually taught, and how he pulls us forward toward his own vision, rather than backward toward a first-century theology that was designed for a time very different from our own. Jesus’s vision, in fact, was truly timeless. If he had been no more than an ordinary apocalypticist, his legacy would not have lasted two thousand years.

And just in case there may still be any doubt that Jesus transcended rather than belonged within apocalyptic tradition, consider the following:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,a what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

No apocalypticist ever spoke or would have spoken that way. Apocalypticism was all about vindication of one’s owngroup and retribution against one’s enemies. No apocalypticist ever would have counseled loving the one who is outside your group, and especially not loving one’s enemies. The outsider was the oppressor, to be subject to God’s wrath. To fit Jesus inside the framework of apocalypticism, one would have to ignore the core of his message.

Here is a similar teaching:

Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. (Matthew 21:31)

Tax collectors were collaborators with Rome! They were extortionists! They were the oppressor! No way would any card-carrying apocalypticist assign them an elevated place in the kingdom.

None of this is meant to deny Jesus’s origins in the apocalyptic theology of his time. Jesus began as a follower of John the Baptist, who was an apocalypticist to his core. Jesus joined John in his call for repentance before the coming of the kingdom. Like John, he anticipated a new “kingdom” yet to come, but he understood it differently. It is indeed a new reality, though not literally following the present one but parallel to it and intertwined with it. Its resources are available to us even now. And it is not to be defined by conquest, but by the realization of a divine order.

There is a scholarly view that sees Jesus as no more than an apocalypticist just like John, a purveyor of an outmoded theology that went nowhere. According to this view, all the little signs of the kingdom we mentioned, the mustard seed, the pearl, the yeast, the net, refer to Jesus’s ministry, called the kingdom by Jesus, small and inconspicuous but destined to grow into an enormous world transformation when the end finally arrives and the Son of Man comes in glory and judgment. I find this implausible. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom (Luke 4:18); he was not the kingdom. The expected kingdom was to have come with the resurerection, and Jesus had yet to be resurrected. His ministry anticipated the kingdom, but the kingdom was something else. Jesus was not just proclaiming himself, but something far greater than himself: a new yet ever-present reality, in which God’s will is done (Matthew 6:10) and for which we must prepare.

Jesus did use the language of the kindgom, but almost reversing how it was commonly understood. Jesus transformed the language of the kingdom, to point toward a reality beyond the arena of human conflict and not simply its culmination. He transcended apocalyptic theology completely, making it relevant not only to his own time but to every time. His followers did not understand: they were used to apocalyptic language the way they knew it, and so many of them carried on the traditional apocalypticism. Paul may be included among these. One can hardly blame them. Jesus was using an established language to describe that for which there is no language. If we see Jesus as a continuation of Hebrew prophecy, this may be easier to appreciate. Jesus’s prototype was Isaiah 11, and similar prophecies transcending their original historical situaiton may be found in “Second Isaiah,” Jeremiah 31, and elsewhere. But Jesus was unique in the way he articulated this vision of a reality beyond reality.

The timelessness and universality of Jesus’s message is what makes Jesus meaningful to me. Today there is more tolerance and diversity within the Christian community, but for centuries Christians weaponized Jesus and used him to attack Jews, sometimes physically, sometimes culturally. And even though things are better now, this still goes on within much of Christianity, resulting in widespread and understandable Jewish hostility towards Jesus. But Jesus was a Jew, carrying forward the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, and I refuse to allow any form of Christianity, nio matter how dominant, to take him away from me. Ironically, it seems that today every group but the Jewish people wants to claim Jesus for itself. But Jesus was born a Jew, observed Jewish religious practice, and died as a Jew. Jesus cannot be understood outside of his Jewish context. Since Jesus’s message was universal, other groups also can relate to him, but they need to do so with gratitude to the Jewish people, whose prophetic and messianic traditions made him possible. Likewise, there is no need for Jews to cede their legitimate right to consider him one of their own.

When I hear the words of Jesus, I understand better what Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, all of them were saying. Jesus belongs both to my ancestral and cultural heritage. He is also a gift of the Jewish people to the world, and not the exclusive property of any one cultural, religious, or ethnic group. I think that if this were better understood, we might find a way for Jews and Christians to come together. For me, understanding Jesus in terms of the tradition from which he came and which formed him, rather than through doctrines that came after him imposing foreign ideas onto that tradition, gives new life to the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible and strengthens my faith.

In sum, I cannot stress this strongly enough: Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. He completed Hebrew prophecy and revealed the covenant’s universality. In being a Jewish Christian I remain within the sphere of Judaism. The evangelical “Jewish Christians” do not. They subscribe to church doctrine and have substituted the man for his message.

So what of the apocalyptic Gospel chapters? Should we just discard them? Not at all. We need not throw out apocalyptic language entirely if we understand the reality to which it points. The human order, the temporal world, is exactly that: it is temporal and will come to an end. And once that end is reached, there will be only the eternal. As Paul put it, then God will be “all in all.” There will be nothing else. But we need to pass through this temporal experience first in order to become aware of what eternal life really is. Without it, eternal life would be somnolence. The jolt of temporality drives us to the eternal, to the understanding that love, which permeates eternal life, begins with compassion, which means being with others in their suffering.

The entire history of Israel as recorded in the Bible, from Abraham through Moses through the Hebrew Prophets, chronicles human evolution towards awareness of the eternal. Jesus built on all that preceded him and completed this prophecy to reveal more clearly than ever the nature of the eternal as grounded in divine love. The natural world with all its pain is not all there is. There is always cause for hope. This is the good news. This prophetic message, that eternity is real and that it informs our existence even here on earth, entitles us to know joy, even in a painful world.

Relationship of Jewish Christianity to Christian Orthodoxy

The foregoing describes what I see as the positive message of Christianity, which becomes visible when connected to its Jewish background. If I am using a term like “Jewish Christianity,” questions naturally arise about what is its connection to “Messianic” Judaism, to traditional Judaism, and to Christian orthodoxy. The answer to the first is simple. There is no connection whatsoever to “Messianic” Judaism. The Jewish Christianity I am proposing represents a total and complete break with “Messianic Judaism” and any of the modern forms of Christianized Judaism built on the Evangelical model. Those forms of “Judaism” are actually disguised versions of Evangelical Christianity. They hold that traditional Jews are “incomplete,” and that no Jew is saved unless she or he comes to Christ, recognizing Jesus Christ as both divine and as their personal savior. The conversion of Jews to Christianity therefore becomes imperative. Such systems have no claim to the title of “Judaism” in any form.

It is truly unfortunate (especially for me) that the term “Jewish Christian” cannot be used without immediately evoking images of Messianic Judaism. For this reason alone I don’t believe my views will ever achieve wide circulation. I can only hope that someday those forms of Christianity based on the evangelical model, including “Messianic” Judaism, will look at the destruction wrought throughout the history of Christianity’s treatment of Jews, will realize their error, and will come to their senses.

The relation of Jewish Christianity (properly understood) to both Christianity and Judaism is complex. First, while “Messianic Judaism” is a modern invention, authentic Jewish Christianity goes back to the origins of Christianity itself. The first Christians were in fact Jews, and back then being both was not considered a contradiction. The leader of the Jewish Christians was James, and there is even a book named after him in the New Testament.

When the influence of Christianity spread and it became a predominantly Gentile religion, things began to change. Gentile Christians saw the Jewish “law” (the Torah) differently than Jews did. No doubt Paul’s influence played a significant role, though his own ambivalence towards Torah is still a matter of scholarly debate. After Paul, foreshadowed in the Gospel of John, and beginning in earnest in the second century, Christianity became decidedly anti-Jewish. Christianity began treating the Jewish law, the Jewish religion, and even Jews themselves, as irrevocably opposed to Christ and to God.

Traditional Christian orthodoxy, especially as represented by great figures like Augustine and the Protestant Reformers, has misunderstood Judaism completely. It sees Judaism as a religion not of grace but of “works.” Jews, the orthodox believe, think they can earn their own salvation by the commandments they obey and the works they perform. Judaism, they say, is a religion of “works righteousness” that denies God’s saving activity with the human race. Jews find such a picture of Judaism unrecognizable and extremely puzzling. Nevertheless, it still persists in many Christian circles, especially Protestant ones. The resulting caricature of Jews as prideful boasters, confident of their entitlement to salvation without relying on God’s grace, has also given rise to no small amount of anti-Semitism.

Opposition to Judaism became entrenched once Christianity made what I believe to have been the greatest and most far-reaching mistake in its theological history: the adoption of atonement theology, and most especially in the form of penal substitution, to explain the death of Christ. It is the notion that Christ suffered and died to atone for our sins by taking upon himself the punishment that was due to each of us. The New Testament does not actually teach this, but before long this theology evolved and was read back into the scriptures. Once it became established church doctrine, reconciliation between Christianity and Judaism was impossible.

There are many problems with the atonement explanation of Christ’s death. First, it is not needed to explain why Jesus died, and in fact it obscures the actual history. Jesus was put to death because he incurred the disfavor of both Temple and Roman authority. By vigorously protesting the corruption of the priestly class (the Sadducees), in his act of vandalizing the Temple, he put a conspicuous mark upon himself. We must remember, however, that it was the Romans who executed Jesus, and they would not have cared about any disputes between Jesus and the Pharisees or the Temple priests. What they did care about was his drawing large crowds who began celebrating him as a leader and calling him a king. The sign under which they crucified him says it all: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”

The Temple leadership may have colluded in Jesus’s betrayal, but the Romans would not have crucified him (a distinctly Roman form of punishment) had they not seen it in their self-interest. In fact, what Jesus did would have gotten him killed by the Romans regardless of any efforts by members of his own people to do him in. When crowds swelled during the Passover holiday, so did Roman surveillance. The activity surrounding Jesus and the crowds following him is exactly the kind of thing that would have drawn the Romans’ attention, and they would not have just stood by passively watching while it took place. But scholars believe that for political reasons, the New Testament writers played down the Roman role in Jesus's fate and gave more weight to the Jews. Pilate as we know him from Josephus and other sources was far more brutal and completely unlike the passive Pilate the Gospels portray.

Even the Gospel of John, the Gospel with the highest Christology, makes clear the reasons for Jesus’s death:

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:45-50)

These religious leaders understood the danger Jesus’s very public activity was creating. So they tried to find a way to save the nation.

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord - the King of Israel!” (John 12:12-13)

Once large numbers of people began publicly proclaiming Jesus as a king, he had no hope of getting out of it alive.

We do not have to reach for theological explanations to understand why Jesus had to die. Scripture portrays clearly enough the conditions that made his death inevitable.

There is still a much worse problem with atonement theology: it made anti-Semitism inevitable. If Gentile Christians believed that the death of Christ was necessary to atone for human sin, then they could not possibly grant legitimacy to Judaism, for if Jews could find favor with God without accepting Christ’s death as atonement for their sins, then Christ died for nothing and Christianity was a hoax. The survival of the Jewish people thus became an affront to Christianity. Christians had to demonize Jews in order to defend their own faith. The continued existence of Judaism and Jews was a powerful irritant to Gentile Christianity; if Christians were to have confidence that Christ’s atoning death truly had saving power, then they had to beleive that Jews were condemned.

And once Christianity acquired state power, the conflict with Jews reached a new level of lethality. There is a straight line from early Christian anti-Judaism and the pervasive anti-Jewish invective in the church fathers and Protestant reformers, through the state-sponsored persecution of Jews, to the Holocaust. While one may debate how “Christian” the Nazi movement actually was, the Holocaust fulfilled what European Christians had wanted to do to Jews for almost two thousand years. In fact, it is only since the shock of the Holocaust that Christianity truly began to reform. The sixteenth-century Protestant “Reformation” created new doctrinal difficulties and new expressions of anti-Semitism, so while necessary to correct certain Catholic excesses, did not achieve reform where it was needed most.

So did Christ die for us? Substitutionary atonement is not necessary for us to see Jesus’s suffering and death as an expression of deep love for us. Jesus knew that by taking a public stand against corruption and openly preaching his message of religious reform and the kingdom and sovereignty of God, drawing the attention of both Jewish and Roman authorities, he was placing his life in danger. According to the Gospel record, he even predicted as much. He even had a chance to flee, but did not. Instead, he chose to join us in our suffering and to give us this message: that the way he died demonstrated that even under the worst possible conditions of human existence God is still present with us. That is love.

And today even many non-Jewish Christians are appreciating the Jewishness of Jesus and the Jewish roots of their faith in new ways. Much progress has been made, and cooperation and conversations between the faiths have become possible as never before.

Relationship of Jewish Christianity to Judaism

Once we see that substitutionary atonement is not a necessary part of Christianity, we can appreciate Judaism in a new way. One may object to any questioning of substitutionary atonement with the cry: “Then how can my sins be forgiven?” Judaism has an answer of its own: God is not just a God of strict justice, but of grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

The “good news” is not what we sometimes hear: that Jesus died on the cross so that God might pardon our sins. Jews find this incomprehensible. They have long known that God does not require the suffering and death of an innocent in order to forgive sins. God does not expect perfection and will not condemn us if we fail to achieve it. As Paul said, we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). God knows this, and does not ask for perfection but for sincere repentance. We can always go to God for forgiveness:

Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits -
who forgives all your iniquity...
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.
(Psalm 103:2-3,14)

This forgiving Jewish God of grace is also the Christian God. Between Judaism and Christianity I see no inevitable conflict; I see continuity. One can view Christianity’s relationship to Judaism in either of two ways: either Christianity’s incorporation of Jewish scripture, history, and theology is the most egregious example of cultural appropriation in human history, or Christianity is Judaism universalized.

One might reasonably ask, if this is true, and if Jews as well as Christians can be saved, then why be Christian? And should Jews feel threatened by Jewish Christianity?

A Jewish Christian understands Jesus as the culmination of Hebrew prophecy - not in a literal sense, as if the prophets had Jesus in mind when they spoke. They did not, and their words should be understood in their original historical context. But Jesus brought the Hebrew prophetic message to its ultimate conclusion. While a detailed exegesis of relevant passages is beyond our present scope, the prophetic message moved the Jewish consciousness in the direction of a God of universal justice and non-exclusionary love. Jesus distilled this message into its most succinct and purest form.

But what about the traditional Jewish objection to Jesus being the Messiah? That the Messiah was supposed to transform the world, but the world is still as conflicted and brutal as ever? Jesus gave us the blueprint for transforming the world ourselves: overcome tribalism, the source of the conflicts that lead to war, by practicing the love that takes you beyond your native boundaries (Matthew 5:46-47, Luke 6:32). Jesus’s teaching of non-self-interested love transcended anything that came before him, and everything that came after. It is the key to creating a messianic world. And Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, showed us how to do it. Implementing this teaching in practice is the work that we must do, and no Messiah is going to do that work for us.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) tells us how Rabbi Joshua ben Levi went out to seek the Messiah. He searched high and low, until finally he found the Prophet Elijah. Overjoyed, he asked him, “When will the Messiah come?” But Elijah told him to find the Messiah himself and then ask him. So Rabbi Joshua went out again to search for the Messiah.

Finally he found him. He asked: “When are you coming?” The Messiah replied, “Today.”

Sorely disappointed, Rabbi Joshua went back to Elijah and complained: “I have found the Messiah as you asked, but he lied to me. He told me he was coming today.”

Elijah responded: “No, he told you the truth. You didn’t hear the entire message. He said: ’Today - if you listen to [God’s] voice!’ (Psalm 95:7).”

Not even the Messiah can change the world if we do not cooperate. We cannot just sit back, do nothing, and expect miracles to happen. The Messiah shows us how. We take it from there.

It should now become clear how Judaism and Christianity can coexist. Both proclaim a God of justice, forgiveness, and love. Both look toward a better age, when God’s kingdom will be established on earth. Christians experience Jesus as the embodiment of this messianic expectation. Jews do not. It is not a matter upon which one’s eternal destiny should hang. Both have equal access to God and to divine forgiveness. God is present in both the church and the synagogue, and I can feel just as close to God in either.

This means that there is no justification for any Christian efforts to proselytize Jews. Jews do not need Christianity in order to be saved. Yet Jesus was Jewish, and Jews are entitled, if they so choose, to see him as their own. Christians must be careful not to take Jesus away from Jews by presenting him as a symbol of exclusivity and intolerance.

Finally, I understand that some traditional Jews may not trust me because of my association with Jesus. That does not sway me; I remain a defender of Judaism. I also believe that no one has the right to remove Jesus from his place in Jewish history. Today many different groups, conservative and progressive, like to claim Jesus, as well as Jewish scripture, as their own. And Jesus’s significance is indeed universal. Nevertheless, those who do make such claims should recognize they owe a debt to the Jewish people.

Conclusion: The Need for Theological Reform

This will no doubt be the most controversial section of this paper. If you are averse to controversy you may stop reading now with no regrets. Meanwhile....

Christianity has not been an unmixed blessing to the world. While it has inspired many to do good works and practice compassion, to many others it has brought unspeakable and prolonged suffering. Christianity is a great paradox. Throughout its history it presented to the world Jesus both as a symbol of compassion and God’s caring love, and a sign of hatred and persecution. This is beyond dispute; the historical record proves it.

Some have tried to explain this contradiction as some Christians behaving badly and not like “real Christians.” This supposedly acounts for Christian violence against many different groups of non-Christians and most especially Jews: the behavior of the perpetrators supposedly had nothing to do with “true Christianity.” Such explanations are untenable. When violence of such magnitude persists for centuries, drawing upon Christian scripture, theology, and ecclesiastical authority for justification, one cannot say it has nothng to do with Christianity. It may have little to do with Jesus, to be sure, but it has everything to do with Christianity and the way it developed after the New Testament and throughout its history.

A better way of understanding the Christian paradox is to recognize Christianity’s double legacy. Christianity has preserved the teachings and legacy of Jesus in the Gospels, and most especially in the Synoptic Gospels. Here we have Jesus’s articulation of universal, non-self-interested love as the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy. That was indeed revolutionary. Jesus, thoroughly Jewish and rooted in Hebrew prophecy, brought the gift of that prophecy and its ultimate conclusion to the world. Christianity performs a great service in keeping this legacy alive.

At the same time, however, a different legacy accompanied that one, a legacy not based upon love but upon fear and the prioritizing of individual salvation. While Jesus opened the borders of the Covenant to include everyone, this different legacy replaced that ideal with a new exclusivism. This new exclusivism comes with a clearly defined in-group and out-group, with the out-group to suffer eternal torments, a doctrine foreign to the Judaism that the new exclusivism abandoned and claimed to supersede. This is a holdover from a long-outdated apocalypticism, and needs to be reexamined.

One way this reexaminaiton can begin is through revisiting three key doctrines that have come to be accepted without question in the Christian world. This is admittedly a sensitive area. Yet I do not see how these issues can be avoided if we are to reevaluate the role of theology in history and hope to preserve the legacy of Jesus in its purity.

First doctrine: Substitutionary Atonement. We have already had much to say about this. It is inconceivable that God's “justice” would accept the brutal slaughter of an innocent human being. If God’s capacity to forgive is so limited, then God’s commandment that we forgive others has no meaning.

And it gets even worse. This doctrine leads inevitably to intolerance of non-Christians, and most especially Jews. If Christ’s death was necessary to make us right with God and secure our salvation, then the Jewish religion, which recognizes no need for this sacrifice, must be demonized. Jews were seen by the early church fathers, and still seen by many orthodox Christians, as proud and arrogant legalists, believing they can earn their own salvation with no need of the Christian savior. For if a Jew could be saved without Christ, “then Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:21). To avoid this horror, Jews had to be marginalized.

Things only got worse with the Protestant Reformation. The doctrine of “faith alone” was clearly contrary to everything Jesus taught (just look at Matthew 25 or Luke 16). Nevertheless, it remains the central tenet of Protestantism. Faith, not good works, is critical, and there is no salvation outside the Christian faith. Against this doctrine, Jews count as blasphemers. Martin Luther’s anti-Jewish vitriol was so extreme and so influential it contributed to setting the stage for the Holocaust.

Many Christians feel an intense gratitude that Christ took their punishment to release them from their sins. But consider what this means: even before we are born, every one of us is considered so evil we would deserve to be crucified had not Christ taken that on in our place. If nothing we could have done could change our deserving this fate, if we had absolutely no choice in the matter, then how can we be held responsible, and why would someone have to be crucified to secure our release? And ask yourselves: would everyone you know, and I mean everyone, deserve crucifixion if Jesus had not paid that price for us? Even though this doctrine has brought comfort to many, its implications are horrendous.

There is no need to make substitutionary atonement a central part of Christianity. And yet there is still a way we can say that Jesus died for our sake. Jesus’s willing death was an act of love, not because God required the crucifixion of someone to satisfy the demands of justice, but because Jesus voluntarily chose (he could have escaped but did not) to share the worst fate a human being can experience and demonstrate to all of us that faith can endure and that God remains present even under the worst conditions of human existence. Revising the doctrine in this way will bring it back to what Jesus actually represented.

Second doctrine: the Trinity. This is another doctrine that is unbiblical. The New Testament does mention Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but not as three separate and distinct divine entities. There is only one place in scripture where the Trinity explicity appears (1 John 5:7 in the King James Version). It has very poor manuscript support, and scholars are virtually unanimous in considering it a later addition and not part of the original New Testament.

The problem with this doctrine is that it makes the abandoment of reason a requirement of faith. It is not possible for three separate, independent enties or “persons” to be one and the same thing. In the Gospels Jesus prays that God’s will and not his be done, and says the Father knows things he does not know. Jesus also sends us the Holy Spirit after he departs. The three are clearly separate, so cannot possibly be one thing.

We are nevertheless told to believe that three equals one, and that it is a “mystery.” There is of course an element of mystery in religion; there are always things we will not be able to understand (Deuteronomy 29::29). But no divine mystery will ever require us to abandon our God-given capacity for reason. Being asked to choose mystery over reason leads to unfortunate consequences. Once we are willing to abandon reason, the appeal to mystery can be and is used to justify all kinds of immoral beliefs and behavior. I have heard the doctrine of hell even for good non-Christians defended on the grounds that it is a “mystery.” How divine justice could require the crucifixion of an innocent is also called a “mystery,” even though it should violate our moral sense. The capacity for reason is a gift from God that conforms us to God’s image. It is our protection against the demonic side of religion. Honoring this capacity honors God. Revelation may transcend reason but will never negate it.

In spite of these pitfalls, the doctrine of the Trinity need not be discarded completely. It can and should be reinterpreted. There is only one God, who can be known in three ways. There is God in God’s pure essence, as Absolute Goodness, the ground of non-self-interested love. There is Jesus as the Christ, while not literally a divine being, manifesting divine qualities in his presence and especially non-self-interested love, so that those in contact with him might have a more direct experience of God’s nature. And there is the Holy Spirit, or spiritual presence, the way we know God apart from its expression in Jesus as the Christ, which we can experience as a guiding presence in our lives.

The Trinity, rightly understood, means God manifest to us in three ways: as essence, example, and presence. Classical church teaching would dismiss or even condemn such a view as "modalism," but classical church teaching is wrong. A modalistic explanation of the Trinity is the only way to keep the concept monotheistic without violating reason.

Third doctrine: the Divinity of Christ. This one is the most sensitive, but it needs to be addressed. Surprisingly, this doctrine, often taken as the heart of Christian faith, may also be extrabiblical. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus never claims to be God, and he even discourages others from making such claims about him (Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19). There is even a similar passage in John (6:15), where Jesus resists an effort to make him king. Even in John, the Gospel with the highest Christology, the question of Jesus's divinity is ambiguous. Jesus must be less than God, because he does not do his own will but only God’s (John 5:30, 8:28). Jesus even admits his inferior status (John 14:28). So any biblical claim for Jesus’s divinity is tenuous at best. We do not realize the extent to which we read the Bible through the prism of church theology. But the Gospel writers were Jewish Christians, who reported tradfitions existing before there was any church theology.

It is not even clear that Paul believed Jesus was divine. Paul is very consistent in his language. He never calls Jesus “God” but only “Lord.” For Paul, only God is God. In both Hebrew and Greek, the title “Lord” does not necessarily imply divinity. It is used, for example, to refer to slavemasters. Therefore one cannot infer divinity from the use of “Lord.”

Why is this important? Because the doctrine of the divinity of Christ is the center point of the church’s exclusivism. It has been used to define the individual’s status before God, and even as the measure of judging who is and is not a sinner. As noted, this is in complete opposition to what Jesus taught (Matthew 7:21). When “being right with God” becomes a matter of belief rather than behavior or character, then all sorts of things become permissible. History provides more than ample evidence.

Yet we can approach even this doctrine with reinterpretation rather than outright rejection. In his prophetic and messianic role, Jesus embodied divine qualities to the extent that those exposed to him might glimpse something of the nature of the Creator. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). This does not mean that Jesus literally is the Father - once again, that would require a suspension of reason (Jesus clearly did not beget himself). It means that through Jesus God's nature as Absolute Goodness and non-self-interested love becomes visible in a concrete way. This is the best way to understand the incarnation: if we want to say “God became flesh,” it happened in the form of God’s representative embodying divine qualities and making them present to us in a way we can easily grasp.

Many of the ideas presented here were common to the earliest Jewish Christians, called “Ebionites” (literally: “the poor ones”). They were condemned after church doctrine became formalized by the early church councils. The orthodox view won out as the result of a process that was more political than spiritual, and achieving victory, it suppressed all the others. Christianity became a virtual monolith until the Protestant Reformation. However, the real reformation did not occur in the sixteenth century. It came about as a result of the Holocaust.

While Luther’s reformation did correct some excesses in the Catholic Church, it did nothing to address the consequences of Christian exclusivism and intolerance. Jews in particular suffered even more as a result of Luther’s “reforms.” But the Holocaust and a realization of Christianity’s role in preparing Europe for it shook the Christian conscience. An unprecedented reexamination of Christianity’s role in history became possible. Today a rapprochement between Christians and Jews is possible that was unthinkable at any time before the Holocaust. There is even now a diversity in Christian thought on a scale not known since before the Council of Nicaea.

So I am proposing that we can learn something from the original Jewish Christians. This is not Judaism against Christianity. It is rather a reformulaiton of Christian faith that is both positive and universal in scope. Before Nicaea it would have had a voice. Now that there is more tolerance of diversity in thought, maybe it still can have one. At the very least, a corrective to Christianity’s historical mistakes is needed. This is one path toward a solution.

There is one key tenet in which I diverge from earlier Jewish Christian belief. Sometimes Christians ask me if I believe, as did some early Jewish Christians, that one must become Jewish in order to be Christian. I do not. Part of Jesus’s prophetic vocation was to universalize the Covenant. He began preaching exclusively to Jews, but then expanded his scope to include Romans and Samaritans. And while the first Jewish Christians (as I also) had questions about the way Paul conducted his mission to the Gentiles, the validity of the mission is not in doubt. Jews could only become a “light unto the nations” by showing the nations that they too are included in God’s essential care. “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).

One Last Word

The intent of this presentation has been to point to defects in church theology as it evolved, and, just as important if not more so, to show that we need not just tear everything down and throw everything out. The message is a positive one, even if in getting there some of us may need to reevaluate core tenets of our faith. And so the Gospel really is good news, but the good news is not that an innocent being had to die a cruel death to pay an exhorbitant price for all of our sins. The real good news is even better: that a life of pain and suffering is not all we were meant to know, that there is eternal life in which we can know God’s essence as unbounded love, and that all of us belong and will find ourselves there if we seek it with all our hearts. To paraphrase Paul, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, and there is no longer Christian or non-Christian; for all of you are one in eternal life with the universal God, exemplified by Christ Jesus, and with no discrimination,” (cf. Galatians 3:28).

The message of covenantal faith is universal. Its essence is that our human experience with all its sorrows is not all there is. I like to think of faith as the awareness of the power of eternity. The Bible is a record of the evolution of human consciousness toward the realization of eternal life, and eternal life has the power to change the way we experience human life. It is the journey of a lifetime. We may never do it perfectly, but remembering the reality of the eternal brings us hope. It is a response to a universal need. Jews and Christians are rightfully partners in bringing to the world the fulfillment of this need. And Jewish Christians, in the sense intended here, can be a living expression of this partnership.

December 2020/June 2021/September 2021