Growing up in a Jewish-Christian, or Messianic Jewish family, I celebrated Passover, Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), and Hanukkah, while learning that Yeshua (Jesus) is the Messiah. As I got older, I realized that made me odd. Of the 6 million Jewish people living in the United States, only 1 or 2% believe in Jesus. Though Jesus and his disciples were all Jewish, we remain almost entirely in spiritual darkness.
Growing up between the Jewish and evangelical Christian worlds and now serving as a missionary with Jews for Jesus, I’ve observed that while Bible-believing Christians love the Jewish people, they nonetheless hold several misconceptions about Jewish people that make it harder to share the gospel. Here are three common misconceptions.
- Judaism is Christianity minus Jesus.
It is entirely understandable to believe something like this: “Christians believe in the Old and New Testaments, while Jews only believe in the Old Testament,” or “Christians believe the Messiah has come, while Jews believe the Messiah has not come.” However, both of these statements misunderstand Judaism as something “incomplete” rather than being a faith in its own right. Often in church meetings during a Q&A this idea takes the form of a question: “The Old Testament so clearly foreshadows Jesus, how do Jewish people not see it?”
The core difference between Judaism and Christianity isn’t simply which books of the Bible count as Scripture but rather the difference between the way Jews and Christians read Scripture. Judaism interprets the Tanakh (a Hebrew term for the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, based on an acronym for Law, Prophets and Writings—the same canonical order referenced in Luke 24:44) through the lens of Jewish tradition.
I live in Brooklyn, the borough of New York City with the largest population of Orthodox Jews outside of Israel. A younger Orthodox Jewish man once explained to me that it’s impossible to read the Bible on its own—we need the help of the Rabbinic commentators whose superior wisdom and intelligence unlocks the secrets of the Bible that are inaccessible to the rest of us.
Judaism trains Jewish people to expect a Messiah who is human, not divine. Though Orthodox Jews acknowledge that a Messianic figure known as “the son of Joseph” might suffer and die, the son of David does not. Reform Judaism emphasizes a Messianic era rather than a Messianic individual. Jewish people are not looking for a Messiah who dies an atoning death because Judaism doesn’t teach original sin. Instead, every person has an evil inclination and a good inclination.
This should make a difference in our gospel communication. Saying “Jesus died for your sins, so believe in him and you will be saved!” does not make sense to most Jewish people. “Who asked him to do that?” they might ask.
Taking time to understand where your Jewish friend is coming from will help you craft a more comprehensible gospel message. Maybe something like this: “I believe Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophecies. In fact, it’s because of him that a Gentile like me worships the God of Israel!”
- Judaism is fundamentally a set of beliefs.
Because Christianity is based on certain beliefs it’s understandable to assume that Judaism is similar. However, Judaism emphasizes orthopraxy—right practice—over orthodoxy—right belief. It is a religion of “deed not creed.” Although there are key beliefs in Judaism, the focus is on belonging to the Jewish people, adherence to Jewish law, and contributing to making the world a better place.
To make matters more complicated, Jewish identity is a complex combination of religion, ethnicity, and culture. It is an ethno-religion. Depending on who you ask, the essence of Judaism is faith, ethics, peoplehood, culture, heritage, or tradition. Within this framework, it is possible for both a deeply committed Orthodox Jew and an atheist to be considered equally Jewish.
A colleague of mine spoke with a young secular Jewish person who explained that since Judaism is an ethno-religion, she was free to pick and choose what parts of her heritage to observe based on which were most personally meaningful. A recent Barna study found that “Often molded by intermarriage and multiculturalism, they [Jewish millennials] reject rigid or traditional definitions of what it means to be Jewish, but—more than any other generation—still consider their Jewish identity to be very important to them.”
- Jewish people are steeped in the Scriptures.
Many Christians rightly have great respect for Jewish people. As lovers of Scripture, many of our greatest heroes are Jewish: Moses, David, Deborah, Elijah, Esther, Mary, Paul, and of course Jesus himself. Seeing the religious devotion of Orthodox Jews is challenging and inspiring. This legitimate admiration can lead to the misconception that Jewish people are always well-versed in Scripture. Some are. I’ve heard of Rabbis who have memorized much of the Bible. However, most Jewish people are not very familiar with the Bible.
In fact, the vast majority of Jewish Americans are secular. Even the very Orthodox who go to religious school to study Judaism spend most of their time studying Jewish legal discussions—not the Scriptures that those discussions are based on! I once spoke with an Orthodox student at Brooklyn College who wasn’t sure whether or not he had ever read Isaiah. The truth is, Jewish people are just like everyone else: some of us know a lot about Judaism. Most of us don’t.
You Can Make a Difference
While I’ve outlined three major misconceptions, there is a fourth I want to point out, namely, that because you aren’t Jewish, you are not qualified to share the gospel with Jewish people!
More Jewish people come to faith in Jesus through the witness of their Gentile Christian friends and co-workers than any other way. In fact, it was my dad, a gentile, who first shared the gospel with my mom. In some ways, you have an advantage over Jewish believers like me. It is often intriguing to a Jewish person to hear from someone like you that their being Jewish is something you value; that you oppose anti-Semitism because God loves the Jewish people; that because of Jesus you are interested in the Jewish roots of your faith. You don’t need to read Hebrew or know every Messianic prophecy by heart.
All you need is a willingness to be used by God as his messenger to those who are willing to listen.
 Barna, The Evolving Spiritual Identity of Jewish Millennials https://www.barna.com/research/beliefs-behaviors-shaping-jewish-millennials/