The Messianic Jewish movement is a newcomer on the missiological scene: an “insider movement” that tries to plant a New Testament–based faith in the Messiah into Jewish tradition and to bridge the church and synagogue traditions.
While Judaism in the first century was a pluriform tradition that included followers of Jesus, rabbinic tradition from the third century onward defined itself as a more narrow confession. After Bar Kokhba’s catastrophic defeat the rabbis postponed the expected messianic kingdom. They outlined Jewish faith and ethics for a world without a temple, for a Jewish people subjugated by foreign nations. Part of this self-definition that is evident already in third-century rabbinic writings is a conscious departure from faith in Jesus as Messiah.
Messianic Jews try to anchor their identity in the Judaism of the first century, and may see themselves as direct successors of the community in Acts. They try to overcome Maimonides’ more narrow definition of Jewish monotheism (“YHWH is not only ehad [one], but yahid [the only one]”—a concept of the godhead that excludes the divinity of the Messiah). There are Messianic Jews who frequent the synagogue, partake in the liturgy, and add their voices to “Adon Olam,” a medieval hymn stressing that there is none equal to YHWH. But the use of rabbinic liturgy without a theological transformation such as that implemented by Joseph Rabinowitz in the 1880s remains problematic.
Another missiological newcomer is the movement of Muslims who have found Jesus. According to Garrison’s A Wind in the House of Islam, between two and seven million Muslims have come to faith the last 20 years. While mission to Muslims through the centuries never led to flourishing Jesus movements, new communities are now growing from within. People come to faith by visions, revelations, healing, satellite TV, and reading the New Testament or the Qur’an.
In Bangladesh, West Africa, and among Berbers in Algeria we see villages and communities openly confessing Jesus; we even see “Jesus mosques.” There are towns in Bangladesh where you might be asked, “Are you a Mohammed Muslim or a Jesus Muslim?”
In the Middle East, small groups, congregations, and networks have a low-key profile due to the danger of persecution. Those I have encountered and ministered with here usually call themselves “believers” (moamanim) or “Muslim background believers” (MBBs), as the term “Christian” does not work (as with Messianic Jews). Most of them are not frequent visitors to the mosque and find their main fellowship in their own groups.
A Muslim who confesses Jesus as his Lord (and is then seen by others as a “Christian”) will usually be expelled from family, tribe, and village, and will lose the ability to witness to his peers (as often happened with Jewish Christians in the 19th and 20th centuries). Is there another way to plant New Testament faith into national and local culture?
There are believers who choose a more contextualized approach, such as “Jesus Muslims” in Bangladesh and “Jesus Imandars” in India. They do not want to be identified with Christians from the West or from local tribes (such as Khasi or Santhal). Here and in Indonesia, some call themselves “followers of Isa (Jesus).” Others identify as “Muslim followers of Isa”; the appearance of the latter has caused an intense missiological debate since 1998. Some of these “Muslim followers of Isa” still read the Qur’an, go to the mosque, and in their hearts rephrase the Shahadah: “There is no God but Allah and Isa is his prophet” (or “. . . Isa is the Word and Spirit of Allah”).
Recent historic-critical research suggests that Islam began as a monotheistic reform movement with open links to oriental Christian tradition (and Jewish as well)—see, e.g., Shoemaker, The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad’s Life and the Beginnings of Islam. Only after 30–60 years did Islam define itself as a more narrow monotheistic faith.
Like Messianic Jews, “Muslim followers of Isa” reach back to the beginnings of their tradition. Both delineate themselves from later, narrower understandings of the godhead, and both break with substantial parts of their faith tradition. The Qur’an and the Jewish prayer book may provide inspiration and can be used in apologetics and evangelism, but travelers on both paths need to keep the Bible as the basis for their faith.
Torleif Elgvin is a professor of biblical and Jewish studies at NLA University College, Oslo. He served as the director of the Caspari Center from 1986–93.