By Ben Volman
Since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire around 325 CE, the Jewish people have struggled to survive centuries of prejudice and condemnation.
Christianity, when it was first recognized by Rome, had already rejected its Jewish roots and its debt to the Jewish people. A long, bitter winter descended on the relationship between the Church and Israel. For centuries, Jewish people were horribly persecuted and often forced to give up their identity. Others made the choice to convert for economic or social gain.
But even throughout these centuries, there have been Jewish individuals who made an authentic, personal decision to follow Yeshua as Messiah. Today, as in the past, those who believe in Yeshua come from every area of Jewish life – including both men and women of every level of education, background, and religious heritage, including those who are Orthodox.
Given all those years of persecution, why have there continued to be Jewish followers of Jesus? The answer is both simple and profound. Jewish people have experienced the coming of Messiah in their hearts and lives, and have wanted to share the blessings of the truth with others.
The numbers of Jewish believers have usually been relatively small, yet persistently evident within the Jewish community. Drawn by the testimony of a Jewish or Gentile friend or relative and challenged by the Scriptures, the decision to follow Jesus was confirmed by a heartfelt spiritual awakening.
Rather than economic or social benefit, most Jewish believers have taken this step of faith at great personal and social cost. The decision usually came slowly, over many months or years. Many assumed that they were alone or, at best, one of a handful of Jewish people in the world who believed in Yeshua. Only in time did they become aware of any larger network of Jewish believers.
At the start of the 19th century, organizations of Jewish believers began to appear, identifying as Hebrew Christians. These organizations were very successful at developing new outreaches that spread the message of Jesus across Europe, Asia, North and South America.
The first national organization of Hebrew Christians was established in Britain in 1866 and was soon followed by other European societies. The North American society was formed in 1915, and an international organization with global representation has existed since 1923. The European Hebrew Christian community was devastated by the Holocaust and growth shifted largely to North America until the last quarter of the 20th century.
In 1967, just as Yeshua had predicted, Jerusalem became a Jewish city (Luke 21:24). This was a major event for Jewish believers. Hebrew Christianity, which existed largely in the context of Christian churches, has been replaced by Messianic Judaism, an independent movement with a vibrant focus on the Jewish roots of believers in Jesus. Messianic Jews boldly identify as Jewish and use Jewish terminology (such as the Jewish name of Jesus, Yeshua) to describe what they believe.
Their numbers have multiplied internationally through Messianic congregations that are distinctively Jewish in liturgy and culture. Hundreds of these congregations exist across North America, and they have spread throughout Europe, Russia, Asia and South America. In Israel, an estimated 25,000 Jewish believers participate in more than 200 congregations and fellowships.
Messianic Jews represent one of the most visible, growing Jewish identities within Judaism.