Messianic Jews in the Second Century
Two accusations against and misunderstandings about Messianic Judaism that I often hear are:
Messianic Judaism is a recent phenomenon to make Christianity palatable to Jews.
Messianic Judaism re-erects the Wall of Partition (Eph. 2:14), separating Jewish and Gentile believers.
Amazingly these were issues in the middle of the second century as well (proving that Messianic Judaism is not a modern phenomenon).
I want to turn to Justin Martyr, a most unlikely ally in this pursuit, as he was one of the first proponents of Replacement Theology and even wrote:
For the true spiritual Israel, and descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ. Even so we, who have been quarried out from the bowels of Christ, are the true Israelite race.[i]
In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin Martyr reveals that even in the middle of the second century, 150 years after the birth of the Messiah, the issue of whether or not a Jewish believer could still live as a Jew was pressing. Understand that many consider Justin Martyr the leading theologian of the second century, therefore the fact that he addresses these issues shows it was something that the second century believers were wrestling with.
The irony is, that exactly 100 years earlier the disciples wrestled with the exact opposite question. Does a Gentile have to convert to Judaism and be circumcised in order to be considered a believer? The answer from heaven (Acts 15) was no. But never did it enter their minds that Jews who came to know the Jewish Messiah, would not continue to honor the Torah—not as a means of finding salvation, but living out their unique calling (Rom. 11:29). In Acts 21, several years after the decision of the Jerusalem Council, we find tens of thousands of Jewish believers in Jerusalem, all of whom are “zealous for the Torah.” (Acts 21:20)
Now it is 100 years later. The Jewish believing community (believed to be known as the Nazarenes) no longer possesses the prominent teaching positions in the body of believers, but they are rejected by their kinsmen after the flesh (for not being loyal to the false Messiah and rebel, Bar Kokhba) and shunned by many in the Church for continuing to live as Jews. It is possible that many of the Gentile believers accused the Jewish believers of raising up the Middle Wall of Partition as well.
The Middle Wall Myth
The Middle Wall of Partition, which Paul says is torn down, was not the Torah or the Hebrew Scriptures, but an actual wall in the Temple. Gentiles could not pass it. It has been torn down in light of the blood of Yeshua, which is color, race and gender-blind. Any human being can receive forgiveness regardless of background. As Simon Peter said when he addressed Cornelius and his friends,
“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10:34-45)
The Middle Wall of Partition had nothing to do with Jewish people continuing to honor the Law of Moses (which really is the Law of Elohim given to Moses). The wall excluded Gentiles from full fellowship. It has been torn down to welcome the nations into the Olive Tree of salvation, not to destroy Jewish Identity. Gentiles being forced to convert to Judaism would be akin to re-erecting the wall, but Paul, who wrote Ephesians 2:15, was a Torah-observing Jew. And yet, I have heard people say that Messianic Jews continuing to live as Jews is a form of rejecting non-Jews.
I know I am burying the lead here, but permit me one more observation before we look at Justin’s words. The Catholic Church answered this question of whether or not Jews could remain Jews after coming to faith (in the Jewish Messiah) with force. During the inquisitions Jews who converted (under threat of expulsion) were forbidden under the threat of torture and death from continuing to live as Jews in any way. Spies were dispatched to enforce the law and expose the offenders.
Second Century Conclusion
Justin Martyr however did not agree with their future conclusions. In Martyr’s dialogue with Trypho, he debates a fictional Trypho, a Jew, over whether or not Jesus is the prophesied Jewish Messiah. Trypho asks:
“But if some [Jewish believers], even now, wish to live in the observance of the institutions given by Moses, and yet believe in this Jesus who was crucified, recognising him to be the Christ of God, and that it is given to him to be absolute judge of all, and that his is the everlasting kingdom, can they also be saved? …if someone…after he recognises that this man is [the prophesied Jewish Messiah], and has believed in and obeys him, wishes, however, to observe these institutions [given by Moses], will he be saved?”[ii]
“In my opinion, Trypho, such a one will be saved, if he does not strive in every way to persuade other men—I mean… Gentiles…, to observe the same things as himself, telling them that they will not be saved unless they do.”[iii]
That is mainstream Messianic Jewish theology! Jews are called (not demanded) to continue to live and identify themselves as Jews, but we in no way feel it is right to compel Gentile believers to honor the liturgical aspects ( i.e. Circumcision, Saturday Sabbath, food laws, feasts) to be saved. I find it fascinating that one of the first proponents of one of the most damaging, murderous theologies ever to be stated, Replacement Theology, was also a proponent of Messianic Judaism! Or at least he was not against it.
So if the fellow who actually believed that the Church replaces Israel and Israel is no longer called or chosen, was comfortable with Jewish believers continuing to live as Jews, why then do people today take offense?
The final thing we can take away from this is that 150 years after the birth of Yeshua, there were Jews under in the Roman Empire who loved Yeshua and continued to honor the Torah.
(Note: It was while reading Ray Pritz’s book on the early Jewish believers that I stumbled upon the Justin Martyr quote. I urge everyone who is interested in this issue to buy his book on Amazon.)
[i] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho