Home » Messianic Judaism: Two Movement, Same Name

Messianic Judaism: Two Movement, Same Name

by Dr. Eitan Bar
7 minutes read

Messianic Judaism: One name, two different movements

Messianic Judaism is a unique and evolving religious movement that intertwines Christian theology with Jewish customs and traditions. With roots extending back several decades, its genesis can be traced to believers who felt an intrinsic need to recognize and honor the Jewish origins of Christianity. Yet, as with any global movement, regional variations arise, and the differences between Messianic Judaism in the diaspora and in Israel are particularly noteworthy.

Messianic Judaism in the Diaspora

I vividly remember the first couple of times I was invited to speak at Messianic churches (or congregations) in the USA. What stood out most was that, despite its Jewish-sounding name, about 95% of the church’s members were not of Jewish origin. Over the last 15 years, having visited numerous churches and Messianic congregations across more than 20 states in the USA, I realized that most Jewish believers in Jesus don’t attend Messianic churches but a variety of Christian ones — both traditional and Protestant.

Messianic Judaism outside of Israel, often associated with the Hebrew Roots Movement, emerges primarily from conservative evangelical backgrounds, particularly Pentecostal ones. Its adherents, though frequently not of Jewish ethnicity or tradition, feel a profound calling to observe Jewish rituals, such as wearing the Yarmulke and Tzitzit, and to adhere to the laws of the Torah, like keeping Kosher and observing the Sabbath. Followers often explain that this synthesis of beliefs and practices aims for a more holistic understanding of Christianity by reconnecting with its ancient Jewish roots. The movement’s adherents tend to view Jesus, often referred to by his Hebrew name, Yeshua, as the awaited Jewish Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament.

The theological foundation of Messianic Judaism in the diaspora largely mirrors that of evangelical Christianity. However, what distinguishes this movement is its emphasis on Mosaic laws and Jewish traditions. This convergence is not merely symbolic but deeply integrated into their worship, lifestyle, and religious celebrations.

Messianic Judaism in Israel

The situation changes dramatically when looking at Israel. Here, despite sharing its name with the diaspora movement, Messianic Judaism assumes a different character. It’s paradoxical that in the Jewish homeland, the primary adherents of this movement are neither Jewish nor native-born Israelis. In Israel, Messianic Judaism is dominated by conservative evangelicals. The movement’s theology typically aligns with one of two types: Reformed (Calvinist) or Pentecostal (primarily from the Holiness movement). However, it’s distinguished by how its practices and beliefs are shaped by Israel’s unique socio-religious context.

In Israel, the interplay between Judaism and Christianity has always been intricate and occasionally contentious. The nation’s profound Jewish identity, coupled with the history of Christian-Jewish relations, has left an indelible mark on how Messianic Judaism is perceived and practiced. Given that a significant percentage of its members are neither Jewish nor native-born Israelis, Israeli Messianic Jews often confront societal skepticism and are generally regarded as an eccentric cult by many Israelis.

Israeli Christianity & Jewish Evangelism

The following section of the article is a copy-paste from my new book, “Why Don’t Jews Believe in Jesus.”

Israel is the most Jewish-populated nation in the world, where 74% of its 10 million inhabitants identify as Jewish.[i] As of 2023, Christians comprised only 1.9% of the Israeli population,[ii] numbering approximately 185,000. The majority of those are not Jewish nor speak Hebrew natively. Over three-quarters of the Christians in Israel are Arabs,[iii] mostly Greek Orthodox.

Ten Christian denominations are formally recognized under Israel’s confessional system: The Armenian Apostolic Church, the Armenian Catholic Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Latin Catholic Church, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, the Syriac Maronite Church, and the Syriac Orthodox Church. However, the practice of religion is free, with no restrictions on the practice of other denominations.

Hundreds of Israeli Christians have converted from Islam and are mostly part of the Roman Catholic Church.[iv] A similar number of Jews converted to traditional churches as well.

The only group in Israel that includes a relatively significant number of Jews who are Christians is called “Messianic Judaism.” Despite the Jewish-sounding name, Messianic Judaism is not a Jewish movement. In fact, about half of its members and most of its pastors[1] are not Jewish.

 In 2012, Messianic Judaism in Israel numbered around 15,000 members.[v]  In 2022, according to a survey[vi] conducted by the Caspari Center, Messianic Judaism in Israel stayed about the same, with 15,323 members. Of these, only “8,125 adults over the age of 18.” Additionally, the survey revealed that only 55% of the members of Messianic Judaism have some kind of Jewish background (at least one Jewish grandparent). This means only about 4,500 group members are adults with at least some Jewish background.

The survey also found that out of the 280 churches in the Messianic movement in Israel, only 42% speak Hebrew.

This indicates that within Messianic Judaism, only a couple of thousands are Israeli-born Jews who speak Hebrew, and fewer are of both Jewish fathers and Jewish mothers.

Compared with 2012, and concerning the significant growth of Israel’s general population, this indicates a significant decrease in members in the messianic movement.

However, from my own experience, most Israeli-born (“Sabra”) Jewish believers in Jesus do not attend church services or connect well with the messianic movement but worship on their own or in small groups.

Messianic Judaism is the only group actively evangelizing Jews in Israel in Hebrew, with a yearly budget of tens of millions of dollars.[2] However, these efforts have had little to no success in the number of Jewish converts joining the movement, as evidenced by the negative growth in members.[3]

Having served in ministries doing Jewish Evangelism in Israel for over 15 years, I came to know the messianic movement inside out. I can confidently say that, on average, no more than 10-20 Israeli Jews annually come to acknowledge Jesus as their Messiah. However, we knew how to leverage these testimonies for fundraising, creating the impression of a revival in Israel. Unfortunately, this was never truly the case, as the factual numbers demonstrate.

In fact, most Israelis who converted and joined the messianic movement left it soon after to either join other denominations, especially traditional ones, return to Judaism, turn secular, or keep their faith yet disconnect themselves from the messianic movement.

The messianic movement is known for having strong financial ties with evangelical Christians and affiliations with reformed seminaries.[4]

Messianic Judaism is considered a syncretist form of hyper-fundamentalist evangelical Christianity mixed with Jewish traditions.

Caspri Center described the movement as “Evangelicalism With Some Jewish Cultural.”[vii]

Theologically speaking, it’s extremely hard to define Messianic Judaism. Indeed, for the most part, it’s a hyper-fundamentalist form of evangelical Christianity. However, in Israel, the churches are a unique melting pot of Calvinism, Pentecostal and Holiness Pentecostal, Charismatic, Brethren, and Southern Baptist churches mixed with some Jewish practices.

Generally speaking, Messianic Judaism emphasizes holiness, obedience, and moralism. It upholds a puritanical and pietistic ethos shaped by a very conservative old spirit and dogmatic worldviews.

Some members consider themselves “Torah observant” or “Oral Law observant.” Some also hold to dispensationalism.

In Israeli society, the Messianic Jewish movement is regarded as a cult both by religious and secular Jews and is not recognized as an official religious denomination by the Israeli government. At the same time, the IDF acknowledges the group’s production of devout and obedient soldiers.

Many group members, especially the more conservative, will believe that only fundamentalist evangelicals are truly saved,[5] thereby rejecting and being unwilling to be associated with most other Christian denominations, such as those recognized by the Israeli government.[6] 

Continue reading more in my book: “Why Don’t Jews Believe in Jesus.”

[1] Over the past 20 years, I was a member of four different messianic churches, all of which are considered large and influential in the movement. Interestingly, all of the lead pastors were non-Israeli Gentiles. The first church was led by a French Pentecostal pastor, the second by an Arab pastor with a Lutheran background, the third by an American Calvinist pastor, and the fourth by an American Southern Baptist pastor. Similarly, my wife attended three churches, all of which also had gentile lead pastors.

[2] For example, according to online reports (such as GuideStar), Israel’s three largest ministries’ yearly budget are about $10-15M each.

[3] Considering the numerous attempts at evangelizing, which have included millions invested in “Jewish evangelism,” it is striking to observe a dramatic decrease in the number of members within Messianic Judaism, especially considering that the general population of Israel has nearly doubled within 25 years.

[4] John MacArthur’s The Master’s Seminary is a popular destination for messianic, followed by DTS, Moody, and others.

[5] Known as “Lordship Salvation.”

[6] As an example, in 2019-2022, a convergence of church leaders within the movement took a concerning course of action, advocating for the informal expulsion of certain Messianic Jewish leaders due to their associations with individuals within traditional Christian denominations. Of course, this is an ‘Appeal to Purity’ fallacy usually practiced by cults.

[i] Israel Central Bureau of Statistics. 29 December 2022. Retrieved 29 December 2022.

[ii] Population of Israel on the Eve of 2023 (Report). Israel Central Bureau of Statistics. 29 December 2022.

[iii] Christmas 2022 – Christians in Israel”www.cbs.gov.il

[iv] Miller, Duane Alexander (April 2014). “Freedom of Religion in Israel-Palestine: May Muslims Become Christians, and Do Christians Have the Freedom to Welcome Such Converts?”. St Francis Magazine. 10 (1): 17–24.

[v] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/11/kosher-jesus-messianic-jews-in-the-holy-land/265670/

[vi] https://www.jpost.com/christianworld/article-696980

[vii] https://www.caspari.com/2022/02/07/the-caspari-center-survey-released-the-israeli-messianic-movement-has-more-than-tripled-in-the-last-20-years

You may also like:

Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist