According to a 2013 Pew Research study, 60 percent of Jews in the United States believe that a person cannot be Jewish if they believe that Yeshua is the Messiah. In 2017, the Jerusalem Post published an article entitled, “Will Israel Ever Accept Messianic Jews?” The article states, “[Messianic Jews] are ineligible to make aliya … they are excluded from the Law of Return as people who have voluntarily converted out of Judaism.” In large part, the Jewish community does not consider Messianic Jews to be Jewish. But this raises the question: Has this always been the case?
Did the Jewish community of ancient Judea think Messianic Jews left Judaism? In Acts 5, Luke reports that the apostles were brought before the Sanhedrin to be judged for teaching that Yeshua was the risen Messiah. This resulted in them being flogged. Paul received similar punishment. In 2 Corinthians 11:24, Paul writes, “Five times I received at the hands of the [Jewish Leaders] the forty lashes less one.” Jewish authorities punished early Messianic Jews for breaking Jewish law. But the very fact of their punishment is what is so telling here. They were liable to be disciplined for breaking Jewish law because the Jewish authorities implicitly understood these Messianic Jews to be Jewish. Jewish scholar Claudia Setzer explains that this kind of punishment was intended to “keep recalcitrant Jews in good standing in the community.” The Sanhedrin would have never condemned non-Jews of breaking Jewish law.
In Acts 24 Luke records how the Sanhedrin implicitly recognized the Jewishness of the early Messianic Jewish movement. Tertullus, the attorney of the high priest prosecutes Paul before the Roman governor of Judea. He argues that Paul was disrupting the peace in the Jewish community and had attempted to profane the temple. In making these accusations, he states that Paul belonged to a Jewish sect called “the Nazarenes.” Paul clarifies that he belongs to “the Way, which they call a sect.” In the Second Temple Period, sects of Judaism were considered “ways” of Jewish belief and practice, and the early Messianic Jewish movement was one of them. Early Messianic Jews called their sect “the Way” alluding to Isaiah 40:3.12 Tertullus called followers of Yeshua “the Nazarenes” as opposed to “the Way” because “the Way” was too “theologically loaded” for the Sanhedrin to use.
The Sanhedrin did not dispute the Jewishness of the early Messianic Jewish movement; they disputed that God had raised Yeshua from the dead. Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin rightly points out that Paul says, “according to the Way, which they call a sect” because Paul views the Way as “the true way, while the Jews [outside his group] say it is just another school of Judaism.” The Jewish community did not believe that Jews who joined the Way had converted to a new religion outside of Judaism. In fact, the Greek word for “conversion” appears only once in the New Testament, in Acts 15:3, and as the late Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide wrote, “[it] refers to the conversion of the Gentiles to the God of Israel.”
The central belief of the Way was that God raised Yeshua from the dead. In Acts 23, Luke records that Paul was brought to trial before the Sanhedrin for teaching this belief. The three most prominent Jewish sects during this period, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Essenes, had less than ten thousand members. While the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, the Sadducees did not. Knowing this, Paul found common ground with the Pharisees. He appealed to their shared hope in the resurrection of the dead and related that belief to the resurrection of Yeshua. The Pharisees recognized that if Yeshua rose from the dead then this would be definitive proof that they were right about the resurrection of the dead. They concluded Paul’s trial by saying, “We find nothing wrong in this man.” Even the central belief of the early Messianic Jews was considered to be a Jewish belief.
Early Messianic Jews were not only considered to be Jewish by the Jewish community, but their sect, the Way, was a major sect of Judaism at the time. New Testament scholar James Charlesworth states, “Today, Jewish and Christian experts of Second Temple Judaism … acknowledge that what would become Christianity was for decades a sect within Judaism.” In large part, today, Messianic Jews are not accepted as fellow Jews within the Jewish community, but this was not the case in the first century.