Responses to the Phrase "Jewish Christian"

Speaking of Faith has received a number of e-mails in response to Joel Marcus referring to himself as a "Jewish Christian." Many of them not only posited this as an impossibility, but believed this crossed a line and was offensive. We regret that.

We were attracted to Joel Marcus on the basis of his scholarship on Christianity's Jewish origins. We wanted a New Testament scholar who could look at the New Testament references to Judaism and put them in context. The fact that Joel Marcus was born and raised Jewish made him more interesting, as did his recent work to apply the core meaning of the Passion story to the persecution of the Jewish people across history.

Dr. Joel Marcus

The term "Jewish Christian" is commonly used in the scholarly literature to denote early believers in Jesus who were not from a Gentile background but of Jewish stock (all of Jesus' twelve disciples, therefore, as well as Paul, were "Jewish Christians"). The term frequently has an additional nuance; it indicates those followers of Jesus who remained faithful to the Jewish law, the Torah; from this standpoint Jesus' brother James was a Jewish Christian but Paul was not. This latter group of Torah-observant Christians is sometimes described as consisting of "Christian Jews," rather than "Jewish Christians," in order to emphasize that their Jewishness remained as important or more important to them than their belief in Jesus' messiahship.

As to the question of whether or not "Jewish Christian" is a justifiable term for contemporary Christians of Jewish background, such as myself — this is more complicated, partly because being Jewish is both a matter of ancestry and a matter of religious belief and practice. The question of whether Christians of Jewish background are Jewish is a subset of the larger and disputed "Who is a Jew" question, which is a matter of controversy both within and between the three main branches of Judaism and within the secular state of Israel. From the point of view of (orthodox) Jewish religious law, Jews who convert to Christianity remain Jews, albeit apostate ones. However, in the case of Brother Daniel, a Jewish convert and a Carmelite monk who applied for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, the Israeli Supreme Court refused to accept this definition because the past centuries of persecution of Jews by Christians meant that in most Jews' minds "Jew" and "Christian" had become opposites.

My own religious practice is not Jewish; I do not, for example, try to keep the kosher laws or to observe the Sabbath. (Neither, however, do most Jews worldwide.) My religious identity for the past 30 years or so has been Christian. Culturally, however, my identity has strong Jewish elements. I read and speak Hebrew, identify with, while remaining critical of many aspects of, the state of Israel, and feel comfortable going to synagogue. I think of myself, therefore, as, in several important senses, Jewish, and I think that many of those who know me, both Jews and Christians, would agree. But I expect that many, probably most, Jews would disagree, especially when confronted with the abstract issue rather than with me as a person. For them, I am not a Jew; for myself, I am. Since "Jew" is not a term with a sharp definition but a social construction, it seems to me that there is room in the world for both views. 

Rabbi Barry Cytron

Among the first rules of interfaith dialogue is that each participant deserves the privilege, and the right, of self-definition. That surely pertains to Professor Marcus' self-description of himself as both a Jew and a Christian.

Yet, as the program's host suggests, the term "Jewish-Christian," and the corresponding phrase "Gentile-Christian" are routinely associated only with the era in which the New Testament was being written. Speaking of oneself today as "Jewish-Christian" is problematic for many reasons, particularly given the controversies between many American Jews, and some Christians, over the modern phenomenon called by its adherents "Jewish messianism."

Although Professor Marcus does not claim connection to this movement in American religion, its notoriety, and obvious connection to the program's themes, warrants brief exploration. Those who subscribe to Jewish messianism profess their observance of Jewish ritual while at the same time proclaiming their belief that Jesus Christ is the hoped for Messiah of traditional Judaism. Some who practice this faith speak of themselves as "Jewish-Christians." While no one may proscribe such terminology, nearly all American Jews, and many critically trained Christians, would reject any and all attempts to merge the faiths, as these individuals seem to do with their self-descriptor.

Many Christians acknowledge this concern. For example, the Guidelines for Lutheran-Jewish Relations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America state:

Groups such as "Jews for Jesus" or "Messianic Jews" consist of persons from a Jewish background who have converted to Christianity and who wish to retain their Jewish heritage and identity. Lutherans should be aware that most Jews regard such persons as having forsaken Judaism, and consider efforts to maintain otherwise to be deceptive.

Moreover, in settled case law in Israel, efforts by some individuals born to Jewish parents to assert identity as a Jew, while also practicing and proclaiming classic Christian belief, have been routinely rebuffed. As the Supreme Court of Israel wrote in the celebrated case of Brother Daniel Rufeisen, a courageous Catholic priest who had converted from his Jewish heritage, but sought to identify as a Jew for purposes of Israeli citizenship, "a Jew who has converted to Christianity is not known as Jewish. Despite Brother Daniel's many qualities and the sincere love he holds for Jews, which he has proved, he cannot define himself as Jewish."

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is an author and Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Duke Divinity School.