The 2 Competing Histories of Ancient Messianic Judaism

Within the Messianic movement are 2 schools of thought regarding Gentile identity, the Exclusionists who teach that Gentiles are excluded from Israel/Torah, the Inclusionists who teach that Gentiles are included in Israel/Torah, and each camp has its own way of telling the story of ancient Messianic Judaism.  In effect, there are 2 competing stories about the history of ancient Messianic Judaism.

The UMJC, for example, which advocates the Exclusionist school of thought, tells the story something like this:

The first community of Believers were predominantly Jewish and they identified as members of Israel who lived according to Torah and operated within the spectrum of halacha at that time.  These Messianic Jews lived this way in the first century (Acts 21) and on into the 4th century (see note 1 below).  The Messianic Gentiles, on the other hand, were freed of the burden of a Jewish way of life (Acts 15) and eventually developed the religion of Christianity which is followed by the Gentile wing of the Ekklesia.

For a typical Inclusionist (aka One Law proponent), the story of the early Messianic Jews is the same but the story of the early Messianic Gentiles is completely different:

The first community of Believers were predominantly Jewish and they identified as members of Israel who lived according to Torah and operated within the spectrum of halacha at that time.  The Gentile Believers were also taught to identify as members of Israel who were called to live according to the Torah and operate within normative Judaism (Acts 15).  There is historical evidence that Messianic Jews continued practicing Messianic Judaism up into the 4th century (note 1).  And there is historical evidence that Messianic Gentiles also continued practicing Messianic Judaism up into the 4th century (note 2).

As you can see, the plot line regarding the early Gentile Believers changes completely based on one’s exegesis of Acts 15.  And, lamentably, the Exclusionist exegesis is borrowed in its entirety from the outdated Christian exegesis of Acts 15.  For an example of Inclusionist exegesis of Acts 15 which is based on modern textual criticism and which proceeds without the typical anti-Judaic Christian bias, please see note 3 below.




(1)  “[They] did not call themselves Christians, but Nazarenes….[T]hey remained wholly Jewish and nothing else.  For they use not only the New Testament but also the Old like the Jews….[They] live according to the preaching of the Law as among the Jews…. They have a good mastery of the Hebrew language.  For the entire Law and the Prophets and what is called the Scriptures, I mention the poetical books, Kings, Chronicles and Esther and all the others are read in Hebrew by them as that is the case with the Jews of course.  Only in this respect they differ from the Jews and Christians:  with the Jews they do not agree because of their belief in Christ, with the Christians because they are trained in the Law, in circumcision, the Sabbath and the other things,”  Epiphanius (4th Century Church Father), as quoted in Introduction to Messianic Judaism, David Rudolph and Joel Willitts

(2)   In the following excerpts from Gager’s “Origins of Anti-Semitism”, we see that there were famous presyters in the 4th century (“Church Fathers”) who noted, much to their own personal consternation, that there was a widespread presence of Gentile Believers who, horror of horrors, viewed the synagogue as a holy site and believed that they were supposed to keep Shabbat and other Jewish festivals and even undergo circumcision:

 “In 386, while still a presbyter at Antioch, in western Syria, Chrysostom interrupted his addresses against the Arians and began a series of eight sermons directed against Judaizing Christians in the city.  The timing of these sermons is of interest in that they are addressed not to the Christian calendar but rather to the Jewish festivals (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkoth) of the autumn season.  The reason for this unusual proceeding, as Chrysostom himself plainly reveals, is that numerous Christians in the city were accustomed to celebrate these festivals with the Jews.  John hoped to dissuade them from doing so.
 The immediate audience of the homilies, it should be noted, is neither the Christian Judaizers nor the Jews themselves but members of Chrysostom’s own congregation.  His announced aim is to combat their complacency regarding the Judaizers.  With dire threats of perdition, he urges his listeners to seek them out in their homes and to dissuade them from their foolish ways.  But if loyal Christians are the audience of the sermons, the Judaizers are the targets of his wrath and the Jews its victims.  His method is to turn the tables on these Judaizers, by likening the synagogue to a theater or a brothel rather than a place of power (I. 2-3).  Better to die of illness, which he calls a martyr’s death, than to make use of Jewish charms and spells (VIII. 5-8).
 Throughout the homilies, but especially in the first and last, his language is intemperate.  At one or two points in the first homily he appears to pause, as if members of the audience had expressed dismay at his words, in order to justify his choice of words.  ‘I know that some will condemn me for daring to say that the synagogue is no different from the theater….’ (I. 2).  But he will not be deterred.  The Jews have degenerated to the level of dogs.  They are drunkards and gluttons.  They beat their servants.  They are ignorant of God.  Their festivals are worthless and were proclaimed as such by the biblical prophets.  Their synagogues are the dwelling places of demons.  ‘If our way is true, as it is, theirs is fraudulent.   I am not speaking of the Scriptures.  Far from it.  For they lead me to Christ.  I am speaking of their present impurity and madness’ (I. 6).  And by way of summing up:  ‘What more can I say?  Rapacity, greed, betrayal of the poor, thefts, keeping of taverns.  The whole day would not suffice to tell of these things’ (I. 7).
 What were the activities of these Judaizers that so outraged the eloquent presbyter?  They attend the Jewish festivals and join in their fasts.  They undergo circumcision.  They observe the Sabbath.  They honor the synagogue as a holy site.  They make use of Jewish charms and spells as cures for diseases.  They sleep in the synagogue at Daphne, a suburb of the city, for the purpose of receiving dream-revelations.  In Chrysostom’s own words, they ‘have high regard for the Jews and think that their present way of life is holy’ (I. 3).  Furthermore, the ‘sickness’ was not limited to a few.  On numerous occasions Chrysostom speaks of them as many (polloi) and at one point warns his listeners not to announce the full number lest the reputation of the church suffer damage. …While he does not advocate the use of force against the Jews, he is not opposed to it as a means of recovering a fellow Christian from the fellowship of ‘the Christ killers’ (I. 4).  At another point he admits that he has come to lust for combat against the Jews (VI. I),” John G. Gager, Origins of Anti-Semitism

“IGNATIUS OF ANTIOCH…Turning from the Didascalia, dated between 200 and 250, and the sources of the Pseudo-Clementines, reaching perhaps as early as 200, to Ignatius, we arrive at Antioch in the first decade of the second century.  In our discussion of John Chrysostom we have already discovered disputes at Antioch regarding Christians and the observance of the Mosaic commandments.  With Ignatius we encounter once again a protest by an ecclesiastical leader against the observance of Jewish practices in that city by persons who regarded themselves as Christians. To be sure, the letters of Ignatius bear only indirectly on the city of Antioch.  They were written during Ignatius’s forced journey toward martyrdom in Rome, and they address issues which he encountered in Christian communities along the way.  The tone of several passages suggests that Ignatius was genuinely surprised by the Judaizers whom he encountered on his journey.  In view of what we know about the previous and subsequent history of Christianity in Antioch, however, it seems unlikely that Ignatius was completely unfamiliar with the phenomenon of Christian Judaizers.  Perhaps what surprised him was the discovery that they were not limited to Antioch! Two of Ignatius’s letters contain clear references to Judaizers.  In Magnesians his warning ‘not to be led astray by strange doctrines or old tales which are without benefit (8.1)’ is directed at those who had been living according to some form of Judaism.  The contrast between the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day in 9.1 may point to Sabbath observances.  Finally in 10.3 he completes the picture, though adding no new information, by expostulating that ‘it is foolish to talk of Jesus Christ and to Judaize.’
 In his letter to the Philadelphians, he says the following:
 ‘If anyone should undertake to interpret Judaism to you, do not listen to him.  For it is better to hear of Christianity from a man who has been circumcised than to hear of Judaism from someone who is uncircumcised.’ [6.1]
 Ignatius’s words are not altogether unambiguous, but the situation appears to involve an effort on the part of Gentile converts to Judaism, or perhaps Gentile Judaizers, to suggest that the two faiths be regarded as complements rather than opposites.  Unfortunately, nothing further is said about those who were ‘interpreting Judaism’ except that they were not born Jews
,” John G. Gager, Origins of Anti-Semitism

(3)  ACTS 15

The issue before the Jerusalem Council was: from whence does covenantal salvation come? Some unauthorized Pharisees argued it comes from circumcision (15:1), Peter argued it comes from grace and faith (15:9,11).  Peter also posited that Gentiles had joined Israel, becoming “a People for His Name”(15:14, Note:  only Israel is called by His name, Deut. 14:2; Isaiah 63:19). The council concluded that Peter’s argument was correct (15:14) because his argument agreed with the Prophets (Amos 9:11-12 (LXX); Zechariah 2:11; Isaiah 2:2-3; Isaiah 45; Isaiah 56:3; Isaiah 45:21-22 (LXX), Isaiah 56:6-7 (MT); Micah 4:1-2; Jeremiah 31:31-33 (LXX); Ezekiel 36:25-27) . Given that Peter, the Prophets, and the Council deemed Messianic Gentiles to be saved by grace (contra the Pharisees of 15:1) and “turned” from paganism to join the G-d and People of Israel, James used this newly-established jurisdictional authority over the Messianic Gentiles to order them to desist from contextually-linked, pagan practices (i.e. the Fourfold Decree) that they might now cling to a Judaic sphere of influence (15:21, “law of Moses”).  Far from being a streamlined Torah for Gentiles, the fourfold decree describes 4 things done in first-century pagan temples:  (1) the first-century Gentiles would’ve understood the first item on the list as setting the stage for cultic pagan rites:  alisgematon ton eidolon (“pollutions of idols” and the clarifying term eidolothuton in 15:29 which refers to foods offered to idols);(2) the first-century Gentile would have associated pniktou (“things strangled”) with cultic rites in which the sacrificial animal is strangled (see Philo, Special Laws 4.122); (3) the first-century Gentile would’ve associated porneia, given the context of “eidolon”, with temple prostitution which was embarrassingly well-known in that era; (4) last, the reference to “blood” to a first-century Gentile would bring to mind the nearly universal cultic rite of blood-drinking.  In summary:  Acts 15 teaches that Gentile Believers belong to Israel, are expected to abstain from idolatry (i.e. the fourfold decree), and are expected to transplant themselves into a Judaic sphere of influence where the Torah of Moses is taught (Acts 15:21).  Now, given that all covenantal members of Israel are bound by the precedent of “one law for the community” (Exodus 12:48,49;  Lev. 24:22; Numbers 9:14; Numbers 15:15-16), and given that the decision was issued by Ya’akov (James), it follows that James expected that Gentile Believers would be “doers of the word and not hearers only” (James 1:22).

Source: Orthodox Messianic Judaism (