Horrific thought, isn’t it? But bear with me. Imagine an alternative universe where we go back to the 18th and 19th century with the awful slave trade, and the slaves being brought from Africa are all non-Christians. And they arrive in America and say, “No way, that’s the religion of our enslavers.” None of them come to faith in Jesus. And in this alternative universe we fast forward to today, and there are no American black Christians, no black church, no black Christian culture, and worst of all – there would be no gospel music.
Fortunately, this didn’t happen. The ancient faith in the God of Israel and the message of peace that Yeshua brought breaks down barriers. Many slaves adopted their enslavers’ religion, not out of submission, but from reading about how God freed the Israelite slaves from Egypt and how all humans are equal. They realized their owners were living in defiance of their own religion, and that it would eventually crash down on them. Which it did.
But imagine this alternative universe where becoming a Christian would have been taboo throughout black history. Now imagine another even weirder scenario: Imagine that many black slaves did in fact become Christians in this alternative universe, but no one noticed. How? Because the other slaves saw them as traitors. Any black Christian would become an outcast by his brethren, but he would also be freed and accepted as an equal by the slave owners, and his skin would magically become white. So even if many became Christians, they were all assimilated into the white Christian population.
Does that sound crazy? Ludicrous?
Because that’s exactly what happened to the Christian Jews throughout history. They became outcasts from their synagogues and were assimilated into the gentile churches. Sometimes they chose it and wanted it, but most times they simply had no say, because both Jews and Christians told them they’re no longer Jews. Under these circumstances, no Jewish Christian culture had a chance to develop.
Jews who believe in Jesus are not a recent phenomenon. We have always existed. But a separate Messianic Jewish identity is fairly new, because it couldn’t exist as long as the state ruled over people’s religion. We see the first buds of Messianic Judaism or Hebrew Christians already in the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the establishment of the State of Israel that it really became possible and even fairly easy to maintain an independent Jewish identity without a synagogue.
When we look through the history of Jewish believers in Jesus, they are always defined as “Jewish converts to Christianity” or “Christians with Jewish backgrounds.” In some cases, they turn their back to the Jews altogether and even turn to pure antisemitism, but most times they use their unique position to protect their Jewish brethren from Christian persecution. It doesn’t take a lot of effort digging through the historic archives to find these people. Even just looking at European history from medieval times until the 1800s, we see people like these, in no particular order:
Anacletus II, the Jewish anti-pope in the 12th century.
Joseph Zarfati, who lived in the 16th century in Fez.
Portuguese poet Delegado Goncalo of the 16th century.
Ludwig Desair, one of the greatest Shakespearian actors of the 19th century.
Rabbi Samuel Vivas Yerushalmi, born in Safed in the 1500s who moved to Rome and translated the New Testament to Hebrew.
Adam Michal from Zurich, who translated Josephus into Yiddish in the 16th century.
Joseph Wolff, son of a Rabbi and colorful and eccentric missionary in the 19th century.
Shabtai Nachum from Ancona, who wrote a prayer in Hebrew and Italian in 1741.
Levi Ben Shem Job, chief surgeon of king John II in the 15th century.
Yochanan Hazak who wrote a Hebrew grammar book in Prague in 1566.
Carl Paul Caspari, theologian who lived in Norway in the 19th century and edited the Norwegian Bible translation.
Gustav Cristopher Christian from Nuremberg, who wrote the book “Yesod Emunat Yeshua” in 1712.
Don Juan Heydeck, who published a defense of Christianity against Voltaire and Rousseau in 1792.
Michael Solomon Alexander, Jewish protestant bishop to Jerusalem 1842-1845.
George Moritz Ebers, professor in Egyptology in Leipzig in the 1800s.
Isaac Levita, professor of Hebrew in Cologne in the 16th century.
Joshua Halorki, who lived in Spain in the 14th century.
Georg Natan David, bank director and professor in Copenhagen in the 19th century.
Shlomo Halevi, Rabbi of Burgos in the 14th century, who later became bishop.
Elchanan ben Menachem who lived in Poland, Germany, and Prague in the 16th century.
Josef Ballin, historical painter from the 19th century.
Afred Edersheim, who wrote “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah” in the 19th century.
Max Falk, Hungarian journalist and politician and member of the Hungarian house of representatives in the Austro-Hungarian empire in the 19th century.
Benjamin Disraeli, British prime minister under queen Victoria in the 19th century.
Achille Fould, French statesman and minister of finance under Napoleon (both the first and the third).
Isaac Da Costa, Dutch poet from the 19th century.
William Herschel, astronomer who discovered Uranus in 1781.
Felix Mendelssohn, composer of the 19th century.
The list is long, and I only mentioned extremely few here, in no particular order. And these are just the famous ones, whose names have survived and made it to history books. (My sources for this list were “Some Jewish Witnesses for Christ” by Aaron Bernstein and “Famous Hebrew Christians” by Jacob Gartenhaus).
Just imagine what could have been if these people could have stayed Jewish instead of being branded “converts.” Imagine what could have been if the church and the synagogue hadn’t joined forces to force-assimilate the Jesus-believing Jews into the church. We could have had an amazing Judeo-Christian culture and heritage, but it never got a chance to develop.
But it’s never too late. Now we finally have a State of Israel in which it’s normal to rest on the Shabbat, celebrate Jewish holidays and speak Hebrew, so no one can force-assimilate us. We can finally have an independent Jewish identity without a synagogue. We are finally free to be ourselves and worship Yeshua in Jerusalem in Hebrew for the first time since the apostles.
So please – stop complaining that “you can’t be Jewish and Christian at the same time” or call us “Judaizers” or “evil missionaries.” We don’t have time for your silly squabbles on whether we are allowed to exist or not. We are too busy existing.
And we also have to figure out what the Jewish equivalent of gospel music should be.
This article originally appeared on Tuvia’s blog and is reposted with permission.