I had my first encounter with Judaism when I met an Army chaplain who also happened to be a rabbi. I had never met a rabbi before, but I was a big fan of the Jewish people. So I told him so. In exactly those words, actually: “I’m a big fan of the Jews. God’s chosen people!”
His smile told me that he’d heard that line before, and probably many others like it. I shouldn’t have been surprised; after all, we were both on an army post, and in the army you get to meet all kinds of people. As a chaplain, he must have rubbed shoulders with lots of different sorts of Christians. Our meeting was a novelty for me, but an everyday occurrence for him.
His response to my naïve comment was to produce a book from somewhere—I can’t remember where—called Judaism for Dummies. He offered to let me borrow it. I was moving, if I remember correctly, the next day, so I didn’t have a chance to read it. But that didn’t stop me from learning something valuable about myself.
I would have told anyone who would listen that I loved and supported the Jewish people. In reality, though, I knew hardly anything about Jews, Judaism, Jewish culture, Jewish values, or Jewish history.
If there’s one thing almost every Christian of every denomination is missing, it’s basic Jewish literacy. There are exceptions—hundreds of thousands of them—but in a sea of two billion Christians, these exceptions are comparatively rare.
This is in spite of the fact that our faith finds its origin, its formative impulse, in a religion we now call Second Temple Judaism. The most reputable and respected scholars across denominations agree that Jesus, the apostles, and the first generation of Christians were all practicing Jews.
How is it that we know so little about where we came from? How is it that most of us haven’t even read the equivalent of Judaism for Dummies—a simple primer on what it means to be Jewish and to practice Judaism?
My situation was even more deplorable. I wasn’t just a Christian; I was a dispensationalist. I believed that the Jewish people still matter—that they are part of God’s plan to redeem the world. I think I had a menorah at home. I had even been to Israel, for heaven’s sake. But I was totally clueless when it came to Judaism, to the Jewish way of life.
Israel and the Jewish People
Dispensationalists, as a rule, believe that the Jewish people never stopped being God’s people. They would say that Christians are God’s people too, but that they are a different people; the two groups (Jews and Christians) both have unique roles to play in the eschaton, the last days.
As a result, dispensationalists tend to support the State of Israel. Many dispensationalists have memorabilia from Israel, and some even go on tours. They are fascinated by the reemergence of a Jewish state after eighteen hundred years of exile—as well they should be. The regathering of the Jewish people in the land of Israel is an event of biblical proportions.
Yet this support of Israel doesn’t always translate into Jewish literacy. It certainly didn’t in my case.
See, Israel is more than just a land and a people. The Jewish people have traditionally been defined by a certain way of life, a priestly vocation, a calling to show the other nations of the world what God is like and how he wants people to live. The Jewish people have been given the Torah, the Law of Moses, to lay an inspired foundation for their life together; they have been entrusted with the task of guarding, interpreting, and adjudicating that Law as a “nation of priests”—a sort of representative people for all humanity before God.
The Torah and its accompanying interpretive tradition have slowly molded the Jewish people generation after generation for 3,500 years. After millennia of hardship, that people today reflects God’s design as revealed on Mount Sinai in a way that no other people can.
Even in the New Testament, Paul writes, “To them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ” (Romans 9:4-5). The Jewish people will forever carry an identity and calling that encompasses all of these things Paul mentions, “for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).
All of these things are right there in our Bibles, so why don’t most Christians—or even most dispensationalists—seem to know a thing about Judaism or the Jewish way of life?
This failure has its origin in the very early church. When the Jesus movement was still just a small group of Jews practicing Judaism in imitation of their Jewish rabbi and Messiah King, every Jesus person in the world knew all about Judaism. They had been born into it.
Things changed when Gentiles began coming into the movement. This was a good thing; it was a fulfillment of prophecy and a sign that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah. But it also presented logistical problems. The Gentile followers of Jesus were not to become Jewish; that was decided at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. But because the church now included two different kinds of people from two very different social and religious backgrounds, tensions were introduced.
These tensions slowly grew; you can see Paul trying to alleviate them in books such as Ephesians, Romans, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians as he calls for unity with distinction, instructing Gentiles to follow certain dietary laws in accordance with the Jerusalem Council’s wishes, and pleading with Jews to make it easier for Gentiles to enter into table fellowship.
Yet despite Paul’s efforts the church eventually split. Jewish followers of Jesus remained in their own sects—the Nazarenes, the early Ebionites, and perhaps others—while Gentiles went on to define broader Christianity as a movement that was consciously not Jewish in character. Eventually the non-Jewish Christians came to believe that the new way of life they had defined was ordained by God to supersede (hence “supersessionism”) and replace the Jewish way of life, and that the church was to supersede and replace the Jewish people. From that point on, Jewish literacy was actually discouraged.
Many dispensationalists believe that they have undone supersessionism in the church by embracing the idea that the Jewish people are still the people of God. But that’s not enough. Supersessionism has caused more damage that still needs to be repaired. It has stolen the church’s awareness of her original identity as an extension of the Jewish people. It has covered up the Jewishness of Jesus and the apostles, making the New Testament needlessly hard to understand. It has severed our relationship with the very people God originally called, with the people for whom Messiah came, with the people of whom he is the eternal King and Messiah. In an awful subversion of Romans 11, we have cut ourselves off from the very trunk and roots from which we first derived our spiritual nourishment.
So now we have to start again—we have to start with Judaism for Dummies. We have to reintroduce ourselves to a world of thought we should never have left behind.
Fortunately, you’re in the right place. No matter where you are in your journey back to Jerusalem, FFOZ has a resource for you. If you’re new to all this, pick up a copy of Yeshua Matters and see how Jesus is your connection to the Jewish people.