Jewish Identity and Faith in Yeshua, Part 1

If you are anything like me, you might just be a creature of habit. Many of us are, but perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us. Since the day we were born, we have been learning what to do and how to do it, picking up habits and customs, finding out what works and what doesn’t. Now, many moons later, we have become accomplished at being ourselves or hiding ourselves as the situation seems to require. We can play ourselves or someone else, someone almost entirely different. And yet, somehow, we never lose track of being Jewish and our Jewish identity. Why should that be? In the first part of this article, we are going to look at what makes Jewish identity, what forces are in play to change it, and how to explain those phenomena. In the second part of the article we’ll apply what we have learned to see how Jewish identity fares in modern contexts, how it copes with the historical pressures on identity, and whether the most frequent outcome is necessarily the only possibility.

Part 1—What Makes a Jewish Identity and Why

In this section we are going to take a look at Social Identity Theory and Social Memory Theory to see how identity is formed and maintained and the role that memories—not necessarily held by an individual but by a people or a community—shape and support that identity. In particular, we’ll look at the way that the Bible, its prescriptions for formal ritual, and the way these have been interpreted by the Jewish community across the centuries have built foundations of identity and memory, and act—even when scantily observed—to preserve that identity.

Identity Theory

The term “identity theory” is used to label a collection of proposals about the way that people see themselves, or who they think they are. Dissonance, defined as a lack of agreement or harmony, happens when an individual’s identity is not accepted by others and it can cause acute emotional distress.

To start at the beginning, the biblical world-view offers only a single identity, given and known by God: we are who we are made. Tommy Givens reports that “the existence, and therefore the identity, of the people is given by God,”1 while Joel Hampton insists that “God determined for each person a destiny before they were created.”2 Jonathan Sacks points out that biblical Hebrew does not have a word that exactly matches the English word “person.” Having words for a human being, mortal, man (as opposed to woman) and mankind, the idea of an individual with rights and a status in society is missing. The English word “person” comes from a Latin original meaning “mask,” which enabled actors to play parts on stage. Because of the metaphor society-as-theater, the word changed to describing the role that an individual plays in society. Biblical Hebrew lacks the “person” word, Sacks maintains, because it rejects that metaphor. “We are not the masks we wear; we are the individuals whose innermost thoughts are known to God. We are what lies behind the mask. . . . We are not what others perceive us to be; we are what God knows us to be.”3 This view does allow for a process of discovery; we do not always know exactly who we are and it may take time for us to come to a full realization and expression of our true identity. Dissonance is to be expected when an assumed or contrived identity is out of alignment with the real identity, or when that true identity is not accepted in a situation or context.

The prophet Jeremiah, called as a prophet and given that identity before birth—“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:54)—struggled when he tried not to walk in that calling. “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jer 20:9). Similarly, the Psalmist acknowledges God’s hand and calling in his life from before birth:

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. (Psa 139:13–16)

Zechariah prophesied a clear identity for his son John at his circumcision and naming ceremony, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:76–77). Paul seems to visualize an exchange of identity—ours for his—when we become believers in Messiah: “I have been crucified with [Messiah]. It is no longer I who live, but [Messiah] who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

Academic theories of identity, on the other hand, suggest that identity is both flexible and multiple; even, particularly in the case of social identity, negotiated. By this rubric, we are not necessarily who we think we are or want to imagine ourselves, but who we are allowed to be by the society and culture we inhabit. Psychology teaches that identity—perhaps at its most basic, knowing who is who—is a combination of knowing who we are, of knowing who others are and then, in multiple layers, knowing who they think we are and what they think of themselves. According to this mantra, identity is not, therefore, fixed. Rather, it is the result of negotiation, formed dynamically by comparing similarities and differences; often a matter of the self being distinct or distinguished from the other.5 A performance may be played to establish identity and inside secrets used or held to maintain distinction or distance between identities. Groups of individuals may perform together to create or maintain a corporate identity, or the illusion of an identity as seen by others.6

Identity theory models the self after society, as a reflection of the way actors act and react with each other. As individuals create society by their interactions, their own identity is shaped and modified by the feedback they receive from the society in which they are embedded. As society is patterned and organised, so is the self. By this reckoning, Jan Stets argues, “the self arises in social interaction and within the larger context of a complex, organised society. Since the larger context is complex, organised and differentiated, so too must we characterise the self.” This posits multiple identities, of different salience or priority, including: role identities, the role we play or the position we hold in society; social identities based upon the groups to which individuals belong; and person identities, defined by who we are and the way we behave. Stets explains, “in identity theory, researchers examine how actors identify themselves in terms of being a particular kind of person, taking on particular roles and belonging to certain groups.”7

Early work on identity theory was focussed on role identities. Scholars proposed the existence of two hierarchies of identities within an individual: a prominence hierarchy and a salience hierarchy, both ordered in descending priority. The former describes how individuals like to see themselves, guided by their own priorities and desires; the latter is dependent on the situation in which the individual is located: the more often a particular identity is activated, the higher its salience. While the former is fairly stable, usually changing only gradually over time, the latter is much more fluid as the individual responds to changing situations and contexts. Dissonance occurs when the salience hierarchy is consistently out of sequence with the prominence hierarchy. Other scholars described the importance of commitment; formally defined as the number of persons one is related to through an identity. Less formally, the stronger and deeper the personal connections through a particular identity, the greater the commitment to that identity and the higher its salience. Stets reports that “research strongly supports the link between commitment, identity salience and behavior consistent with salient identities.” Identities are reinforced by positive reception, while negative emotional responses will decrease commitment. Strong emotional effects are experienced when interaction partners do not behave in a way that supports the selected identity.8

It is known that identities can and do change. Two possible mechanisms for internally affected changes have been suggested: a slow change over time, as the self changes to adapt to a new situation, for example, marriage or becoming a parent; alternatively, change may be a reflection of a consistent lack of verification of one identity in favor of another. Other identity changes can be the result of external context changes: organization change or restructuring, a change in resource levels or flow, or a change in the size of an organization.9

Now let’s move from identity theory, concerned with individuals, to social identity theory, concerned with groups of people.

Social Identity Theory

In the simplest terms, social identity theory proposes that social identity is individuals’ sense of who they are, based upon the groups to which they belong; that people categorize themselves and others into groups based on many different criteria; and that groups support or enhance their own self-image by denigrating or discriminating against other groups. Put another way, “social identity theory is a social psychological analysis of the role of self-conception in group membership, group processes and intergroup relations.” Groups compete with one another for members and to be distinctive, not to mention for status and prestige. Group norms, or behavioral expectations, are constructed from appropriate in-group members, and behaviors and are enacted both as part of social identity and group boundaries.10 Creating a boundary includes those within it but, by implication, also excludes those beyond it, the out-group.11

It is important to distinguish between social identity, which stems from group membership—a collective “we” or “us” that is often set against “them”—and personal identity, which is a self-constructed identity based on attributes not necessarily or explicitly shared with other people. Social identity attributes may be immediately perceived from first contact: gender, age, occupation. Personal identity attributes are less obvious: taste in music, a personal history or biography.12

It is suggested that people have as many social identities as groups to which they belong and that social identities, like personal identities, vary in value and salience, with only one being active at any one time, depending on the context and situation. Most groups have a prototype—an amorphous collection of attributes, such as behaviors, opinions, attitudes or understandings—that enable membership to be evaluated; the greater the “fit” between an individual and the prototype, the better “member” that individual is. Prototypes can also be compared between groups to show differentiation or similarity.13 “People conform when they believe they have more to lose by being detected in deviance than they stand to gain from the deviant act.”14 Members who are less conformant to the prototype are often not liked or trusted by the group, so are relatively uninfluential and can be cast as deviants. Because of their position on the boundary, they can be deemed black sheep and more strongly disliked and rejected.15 Membership in two groups that are considered incompatible generates pressure that lowers status in both groups and creates marginalization.16

Michael Hogg identifies three motives that lead groups to be both better than and distinct from other groups: self-enhancement, uncertainty reduction, and optimal distinctiveness. Self-enhancement—the belief that “we,” the in-group, is better than “them,” the out-groups—is protected and promoted at great length, because within the group self is “defined and evaluated in group terms and therefore the status, prestige and social valence of the group attaches to oneself.” Uncertainty reduction offers security and stability to the individual; within the group, individuals have a clear idea of who they are and how they are to behave, the group itself providing positive affirmation. Optimal distinctiveness allows for the balance between inclusion and sameness on the one hand, and distinctiveness and uniqueness on the other.17

Having considered how the two theories of identity work, for individuals and for groups, let’s now take a look at Jewish identity.

Jewish Identity

It has long been a vexed question: who is a Jew? There are almost as many answers as there are Jews!18 Judaism today is “obsessed with the subject of identity.” Even after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, being Jewish is different from being Israeli. Clearly not just a religion, Jewish identity is a “mixture of ethnicity and religion. But in what proportion? And was not the whole more than simply a compound of these two elements?”19 This phenomenon is echoed by Michael Wood—“there is at the moment an obsession with defining identity, with categorising and even trying to measure it and teach it”—but he insists this is not imposed from outside or by an hierarchy, but rather is grown or developed over time:

Identity doesn’t come from the top down . . . it is not genetic, it is not fixed, safe and secure, for it can be reshaped by history and culture; so that it is always in the making and never made; but it is the creation of the people themselves.20

This seems to be confirmed by Richard Jenkins’ assertion that “identification is not a ‘thing’; it is not something that one can have, or not, it is something that one does.”21 Or, in the vernacular: we are what we do. According to Howard Taylor, “we cannot define Jewishness. It is sustained by the grace of God.”22

Jewish people have always argued and written prolifically, whether in a physical medium or carried by oral tradition. Dissenting opinions are recorded alongside the majority23 and communication among an often widespread diaspora makes use of media important, “to actively construct networks and cultural identities in response to their changing circumstances.”24 It is transmitted texts—and there are many different types of texts in many different media: stories, histories, inscriptions, rites, ceremonies, dances, parades, carvings, weavings, tattoos, and coins—that make groups of individuals into a people.25

Michael Wyschogrod anchors Jewish identity in the Torah:

For Jews, the Torah is the expression of God’s will for the conduct of the Jewish people. It is not only that. It is the telling of the stories that collectively constitute the history and self-understanding of the Jewish people.26

Israel is more than a collection of individuals with a set of common values, it is a nation, a people, a corporate identity. Benedict Anderson offers a definition for a nation: “an imagined political community—imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” Imagined because everyone outside an immediate village context will not know or meet the other members of the nation; limited because it has finite boundaries outside which are others who are not members; sovereign because within the nation, it is in charge of its own affairs; and community because however remote or different they may be, a community projects as a horizontal community of brothers.27 The Jewish people meet those criteria for nationhood: imagined in that there are Jewish communities the world over, with a variety of different views and traditions who have never met or will never meet each other, yet all recite the Sh’ma28 and affirm Am Yisrael Chai!;29 limited because only Jewish people are part of the community and outside are the Gentiles; sovereign because each community takes its own decisions within halakha and local tradition yet recognizes the overall sovereignty of the God of Israel; and community because all Jews are part of the people of Israel.

Daniel Langton speaks of the “problem of defining ‘Jewishness’.” He notes that “One tendency, not uncommon among theologians, is to essentialize by classifying people and phenomena as Jewish only in so far as they conform to an assumed essence of a normative Jewishness.” What “normative” means is open to debate; it may be described by “theologically derived criteria such as matrilineal descent, conversion to a particular tradition or set of beliefs, adherence to a certain body of law, or a role in salvation history,” or by “non-theological criteria such as racial, national or cultural characteristics.” This approach, however, depends on validation by an observer, who may be inside or outside the community and may or may not agree with the criteria. Langton shrewdly comments that it also depends on consistency through history—which has been generally lacking. He suggests that a second approach, which moves the responsibility for the accuracy of the claim from an observer to the claimant, is self-definition: “the approved method for many social scientists and historians.” An individual can build his Jewish identity from some or all of the accepted criteria above, or from a variety of other components. Whether such a self-defined Jewish identity will be acceptable to the mainstream Jewish majority is a different matter, but changing perceptions over time mean that some historically accepted Jews would not be considered Jewish by today’s standards and vice-versa.30

What is it, then, that makes a Jewish Identity?

Both anthropology and identity studies have recognized kinship as an important factor in identity formation and maintenance. Kinship ties provide a network of relationships; they form a grid locating people across time and distance as well as within communities. Who you are is a product of which family, clan, or tribe you belong to.31 Kinship is a strong basis for inclusion and exclusion. Within a kinship group, kinship markers include; they are kin properties that identify with others. Outside a kinship context, they exclude; they are a means of difference from others. The platform of kin and the sense of security and belonging it generates have produced the uniqueness of the individual.32

Kinship is partly based on inheritance—genes, blood, physical characteristics—partly on relationships—marriage, parent-child—and partly on shared stories and history. Kin relationships can be natural (blood or marriage), cultural (language, work, shared lives) and fictive (adoption, friendship, group or category membership).33 Naming is often important within kinship; traditional names are shared or inherited.34

Jewish identity shows a strong “kin” or family nature. These characteristics have long been recognised and studied as important principles for identity.35 The Jewish people, B’nei Yisrael,36 are not really a religion or a nation, they are a family.37 Kinship ties hold the Jewish people together the world over, whether religious or secular, frum38 or assimilated. A Jew is still a Jew;39 he is part of the House of Israel. Converts tell the same stories; they are children of “Our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Conversion makes them part of the family.40 The ancient rabbis teach that although the Bible makes it clear that when the Children of Israel rebel they will be punished,41 they still remain his children.42 The Jewish cry today is the same as the cry of Joseph’s brothers when they came to Egypt to buy food: “We are brothers, the sons of one man.”43 The telling of narratives and stories remains a key part of Jewish identity: “it is within this collective identity that narratives have been formed, reformed and continue to be performed.”44 Or, as Michael Wood put it: “We search for our roots and in the past we find ourselves.”45

Rabbi Soloveitchik roots Jewish identity, both individual and communal, in two contracts between God and his people. The communal is expressed in the covenant at Sinai and is inherited by all those who “remain bound to the Jewish collective.”46 The individual is expressed in the covenant made by Moses on the plains of Moab: “Not with you alone . . . but with whoever is here today . . . and whoever is not here today” (Deut 29:13–14). It is the tension between these two, both afforded repentance on Yom Kippur,47 that keeps the Jewish people and Jewish individuals linked.

Evidence from Matthew’s gospel,48 using “fictive kinship terminology,”49 suggests that the earliest communities of Jewish believers saw themselves as a household.50 What many scholars describe as the Matthean Community51 most likely met in private homes, possibly one private home in a given area—as indeed did many first century synagogues. There, close relationships akin to family ties bound the group together; they were a Jewish community first, even though there may have been Gentile participation in the community.

“Historically, Jews have often been defined by their enemies or within the discourse of surrounding majorities.”52 Today the question, “Who is a Jew?” is vigorously contested between the different streams within Judaism and between mainstream and Messianic Judaism.

The text of the Torah provides for patrilineal descent. A son becomes what his father was, be that by tribe—Gadite, Reuvenite, and so on—or status—Israel, Levite, or Kohen (priest) (Num 26:55, 33:54). Unmarried daughters kept their father’s tribe and status until marriage. Inheritance was a strictly male affair, hence the special allowance for the daughters of Tzelophehad (Num 27:1–11, 36:1–12). The biblical text is clear that upon marriage, the wife, even if a foreigner or a captive (Deut 21:10– 14), became a part of her husband’s tribe. Only the seven Canaanite nations were forbidden to Israelites in marriage (Deut 7:3). Cohen concludes that “the matrilineal principle was not yet known in Second Temple times.”53

Orthodox Judaism insists that a Jew is the child of a Jewish mother, although the status of Kohen or Levite remains patrilineal.54 Biblical examples of non-Israelite wives, such as Ruth and Tamar, were glossed with rabbinic narratives of conversion.55 This was discussed by the early rabbis, and while Rabbi Yaakov of K’far Nuberius was prepared to rule that the son of a Jewish father and a Gentile woman is Jewish,56 the Mishnah declares that the offspring of a Jewish father and a Gentile woman is Gentile.57 The majority opinion from rabbinic times onwards can be summed up:

Certain roles within our tradition are inherited in perpetuity. Once David becomes king, all authentic royalty descends from the Davidic dynasty. All male descendants of Moshe’s brother, Aharon, are automatically Kohanim (Priests), while all male descendants of the tribe of Levi are, of course, Levi’im (those who serve within the Temple). Even Jewish identity itself is unalterably inherited through one’s mother (b.Sanhedrin 44a). According to Jewish law, while someone can certainly convert to Judaism, a born or converted Jew cannot “convert out” (b.Kiddushin 66b).58

The Reform movement accepts children of one (either) Jewish parent—adopting Rabbi Yaakov’s ruling from the third century ce59—so long as they have been brought up and self-identify as Jews.60 The State of Israel under the Law of Return accepts someone with any one Jewish grandparent out of four. Messianic Judaism generally accepts either the Orthodox or Reform position, with “their Jewish heritage being clearly traceable through grandparents and beyond.”61

Whereas in past centuries anti-Semitism has been a powerful force for unity among Jews and a compelling reason for survival, recent emancipation and rights have decreased that pressure. Some commentators have asked whether Jewish identity can survive outside the land of Israel:

Specifically, can it survive freedom and equality? The irony is that under conditions of poverty and persecution, Jews tended to stay Jews. It is only when they are affluent and integrated that, in large numbers, they assimilate and abandon their identity.62

In response to the question: “What is most important for the future of Jewish identity?” Professor Sam Heilman replied:

Jewish identity is dependent on Jews being among, living with, and sharing the destiny of Jewish people. Those who don’t share this existential neighborhood and consciousness do not play a significant role in Jewish identity. So the most important thing is creating and enlarging the Jewish street, the Jewish community.63

In the same way as Christians are encouraged to fellowship with other Christians,64 to build up their shared identity “in Christ,” so Heilman claims that the development and maintenance of a strong and healthy Jewish identity depends on Jews spending time with and living with Jews. Goethe famously said, “Tell me with whom you consort and I will tell you who you are.”65

Text and praxis are also powerful constituents of Jewish identity. Max Weber defines ethnic groups as:

those human groups that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization and migration; this belief must be important for the propagation of group formation; conversely, it does not matter whether or not an objective blood relationship exists.66

Blenkinsopp emphasizes that Weber is essentially claiming that belief in descent from a common ancestor is no less effective for being subjective and artificial.67 Characteristics such as a significant name, a shared history, language and religion and a homeland even if not in residence, not only form the Children of Israel, but allow for the inclusion of the gerim, the righteous converts, who come to share in the group identity, taking the name suffix “ben Avraham” or “bat Sarah” and being considered a part of “whoever is not here with us today” that Moshe referenced in the covenant renewal ceremony on the plains of Moab (Deut 29:15).

Although Blenkinsopp believes that “Judaism” as such did not exist before the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, his point is nevertheless still valid. He argues that those returning from the Babylonian exile claimed to be the sole inheritors of the Land and the promises given through the prophets. They were Israel: “The claim to be the Israel which inherits the promises, commitments and privileges to which the traditions testify was now limited to members of the golah68 who subscribed to its theology, its interpretations of the laws and its religious practices.”69 Although self-defined, their identity was anchored in their text and practice.

The power of rite and ritual to connect both the past to the future and individuals to a group are described by Emile Durkheim. Just as groups refresh or remake their identity by assemblies, reunions, and meetings where non-religious ritual reaffirms group cohesion, so in religious groups,

Rite serves and can serve only to sustain the vitality of these beliefs, to keep them from being effaced from memory and, in sum, to revivify the most essential elements of collective consciousness. . . . The past is here represented for the mere sake of representing it and fixing it more firmly in mind, while no determined action over nature is expected of the rite.70

“Each act of commemoration reproduces a commemorative narrative, a story about a particular past that accounts for this ritualized remembrance.”71 When Christians celebrate the Eucharist or Jews keep Passover, this is a ritualized story—a selected narrative drawn from history, creatively interpreting a historical past to serve a present ritual. Neither claims to be perfectly accurate:72 the narrative in the Passover Haggadah does not exactly match the narrative account in the book of Exodus; none of the eucharistic prayers in Common Worship exactly match Paul’s account given to the Corinthians,73 and that in turn doesn’t exactly match the accounts of the Last Supper in the synoptic gospels.74 But that doesn’t matter because together they form what Yael Zerubavel calls a “master commemorative narrative,”75 blending words, actions, responses and participation into a form that reinforces the identity and formation of the group and normalizes the past in an order76 to which everyone can agree.77 In the examples above, Eucharist and Passover commemorate the Last Supper and the Exodus from Egypt for the Christian and Jewish communities respectively, defining events in each of their traditions.78 In turn the “high commemorative density” of such events makes them interpretive keys to other events in a group’s collective memory.79 They are “actions that were meant to be efficient beyond the moment and thus to create and support memory.”80

Commemorative acts serve as glue, a reinforcement to inhibit the ever-present possibility of fracture. If a group becomes disconnected from its past then its identity may unravel or collapse and it may lose the ability to remember. In the ever-increasing distance between formation and the present, constant effort and vigilance is necessary to maintain the memory link.81 This provides one explanation for Judaism’s heavy emphasis on education. Maimonides held that separation from the community was separation from the world to come:

One who separates himself from the community, even if he does not commit a transgression, but only holds aloof from the congregation of Israel, does not fulfil religious precepts in common with his people, shows himself indifferent when they are in distress, does not observe their fasts, but goes his own way as if he were one of the Gentiles and did not belong to the Jewish people—such a person has no share in the world to come.82

Belonging to a people, in this case the Jewish people, is more complex than simply being born Jewish. Torah (kosher food, Shabbat, etc.) may be kept, but it is known that many Greeks and Romans did just that in the early centuries of the Common Era yet were not Jewish.83 More important is the acceptance of Jewish identity, the practical willingness to be a part of the Jewish people and history, as Jonathan Sacks writes, once again making a connection to Anderson’s “imagined communities”:

Destiny is what we do. Fate is what happens to us. One is a code of action, halakha. The other is a form of imagination, the story we tell ourselves as to who we are and where we belong.84

Both Judaism and Christianity accept and teach converts. Less emphasized by Judaism, which is not a proselytizing faith,85 but strongly emphasized by Christianity in obeying Yeshua’s mandate—“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:18)—is that commemorative acts and ritual serve to assimilate new members into the group norms, to adopt the group prototype.86

It would appear that a large part of identity both for individuals and for groups is therefore determined by the group to which you belong, the texts that the group reads and holds to be authoritative, and by what that group does.

Now let’s turn to the Scriptures and see how both Hebrew and Greek texts legislate to maintain and develop a strong religious identity.

A Scriptural Identity Mandate

It is with a clear intent that both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures relate history and prescribe religious ritual. These are preserved by both Jewish and Christian traditions and used to train, nurture, and maintain identity.

Hebrew Scriptures

The Hebrew Scriptures are careful to set up a sturdy framework for relating and reserving history and keeping it current in the minds of the Israelites. A yearly calendar, three major feasts, and a regular seven-day week are established; detailed instructions are given for the operation of the cult by a dedicated workforce; and the people are given the repeated instruction to remember that they were slaves in Egypt.

Annual Calendar

At the start of the Exodus from Egypt, the people are told, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you” (Exod 12:2). This commandment established a yearly calendar, dividing the year into twelve or thirteen equally sized periods based on the cycle of the moon. The “new moon day” is marked by the blowing of silver trumpets87 and special offerings88 that led the rabbis to later regard these days as Yom Kippur Katan, a small Day of Atonement.89 The calendar then places events and festivals by their month number—for example, Yom Kippur falls on the tenth day of the seventh month.

Four of the months are named in the biblical text: the first, Aviv (Exod 13:4); the second, Ziv (1 Kings 6:1, 37); the seventh, Eitanim (1 Kings 8:2); and the eighth, Bul (1 Kings 6:38). These are all agricultural names,90 fixing the calendar to the agricultural cycle of the year. Aviv, meaning literally “ears [of barley],”91 is used to adjust the twelve-month lunar calendar against the solar year by waiting another lunar cycle before declaring the month Aviv if the barley shoots are not yet ripening when the twelfth lunar month ends.

Three Major Feasts

The three major pilgrimage feasts, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, are set respectively on the 14th day of the first month, approximately fifty days after Pesach, and the 15th day of the seventh month. They are collectively known as הַרֶגָלִים, or “the foot festivals” because each one required traveling to the site of the central sanctuary. All the men of Israel are commanded to appear before the Lord and bring appropriate offerings.

You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. As I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. None shall appear before me empty-handed. You shall keep the Feast of Harvest, of the firstfruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall keep the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the Lord God. (Exod 23:15–17)

All these festivals are linked to significant events: Pesach to the exit from Egypt, Shavuot to the first-fruits of the field, and Sukkot to the end of the agricultural year, when all the harvests have been gathered. Equally, each festival is positioned at a time when people can afford to gather, celebrate, and worship God.

No less than three times each year, the people are to gather to rehearse the events of the past and refresh them in their present. This develops shared memories and a collective identity. The stories that are told become a common narrative. While it has been suggested that “the common narrative approach exists only at the cost of exclusion and readily devolves into the tyranny of the majority,”92 it is noticeable that the biblical text takes specific measures to overcome this:

And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your towns, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you, at the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there. (Deut 16:11)

An important part of each festival is the inclusion of the poor or disenfranchised in society, so that the commemoration becomes a community-wide event and is not limited just to those who can afford to celebrate.

The ritual of the first Pesach, described in Exodus chapters 12-13, intersects with multiple senses to enhance the take-up and retention of the original event: touch, smell, taste, vision and sound. The text also includes seven significant extra instructions unrelated to that first night itself:

Observe “You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever” (Exod 12:24). The keeping or observance of Passover, even though it is no longer a life-and-death exodus situation, is to be a permanent marker of Jewish practice. Here the Hebrew root means to watch, guard, keep or protect.

Keep “And when you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service” (Exod 12:25). In particular, the observance of Passover is to be maintained even when the Jewish people are safe in their own land. The same Hebrew verb as last time is employed.

Demonstrate “And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses’” (Exod 12:26–27). The ritual is to be the means of stimulating discussion between parents and children and the passing on of the tradition.

Remember “Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand the Lord brought you out from this place’” (Exod 13:13). The Israelites are to create a memory of the event, both by remembering the original event and by rehearsing the event. The Hebrew root means to remember, to think of and to be mindful of.

Tell “You shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt’” (Exod 13:8). There is to be specific verbal instruction—the Hebrew root used here means to tell, proclaim or announce—and discussion of the event to cement it in the mind of children, so that it becomes multi-generational.

Show “And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth. For with a strong hand the Lord has brought you out of Egypt” (Exod 13:9). Although this is less clear, it appears to be connected with the later commands for tefillin (phylacteries), a highly visible ritual cue. It becomes something that is always in front of a Jew, acting as a filter for what is seen, and a controlling measure on the hand—everything that is seen and done is to be conditioned by God’s commandments and the salvation experience of the Exodus.

Repeat “You shall therefore keep this statute at its appointed time from year to year” (Exod 13:10). It is to be a regular annual commemoration, not simply ad-hoc when people remember or want. Repeated at a particular time each year, this forms a community memory and practice. The “guard, keep, protect” verb is used again.

The choice of vocabulary in the text emphasizes the repetitive and commemorative aspects of the feast and its importance in the normative ritual of the Children of Israel. The Haggadah contains the strong self-identification that “In every generation, a man should see himself as though he had gone forth from Egypt.”93 The long-term results can still be seen in the Jewish people today. The 2013 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” Pew Survey94 reports that seven in ten of American Jews—regardless of synagogue or denominational affiliation—attended a Passover Seder in 2013.95 The Deuteronomic instruction, “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’” (Deut 6:20) predicates obedience of all the commandments upon the Exodus: “because the Lord our God brought us out of Egypt” (Deut 6:21).

Deuteronomy records the instructions and liturgy to be used when celebrating the festival of Shavuot (Deut 26:1–11).96 There is specific recitation of part of the Exodus narrative, bringing first-fruits to the Lord as a sign that God keeps his promises. The recitation is to be followed by a communal feast of celebration, to include not just family but the poor, the Levite and the disenfranchised of society. This is a strong community event, building not just individual but corporate identity around ritualized declarations and shared celebrations. This is identity that is “socially produced, socially embedded and worked out in people’s everyday lives.”97 Notice that although framed in the context of a religious ritual, there is a shift in focus from the role of God in nature, to the role of God in history. It is the farmers of successive generations who are to identify with and become part of the social memory of why they are farming the land of Israel.98

The book of Leviticus sets the stage for the festival of Sukkot, or Tabernacles. It is to be a time of rejoicing, remembering, and looking forward. Just a few days after the solemnity of the High Holy Days—Rosh Hashanah or Yom Teruah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement—the Israelites are commanded to build huts for themselves and live there for seven days rather than in their houses. There is a strong liturgical start to the festival:

You shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. (Lev 23:40)

This was turned into a magnificent set of rituals in the Temple where Yeshua was to make his proclamation about living water (John 7:37–39). Once again, the Torah makes specific connection to history in the feast:

You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Lev 23:42–43)

The festival of Sukkot is an explicit building or reinforcing of the collective memory of the Exodus travels through the wilderness from Egypt to the land of Israel. Who and where Israel is, is dependent on God’s past action in history. Once again, social inclusion is practised, with the Levites, widows, orphans, servants and resident aliens being included—everyone is to rejoice in the harvest and the good things that God has done for his people. In the rejoicing, the ritual, the repetition and the re-enactment, the people reforge their identity as the people of God.

Weekly Shabbat

Almost as soon as our people left Egypt, the concept of a seven-day week became established, around the weekly occupation of gathering manna (Exod 16:4–5). The prohibition of work, for all classes of society, is given as the fifth commandment:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exod 20:8–11)

Here Shabbat is posited as a reminder not of the Exodus, but of creation. The rest, which is mandatory, is for all classes of society including slaves and foreigners living among the Israelites. Specifically, although others benefit from resting on the seventh day, its keeping or observance is an Israelite obligation:

Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed. (Exod 31:16–17)

Apart from the priests and Levites who are responsible for conducting and leading worship in the Sanctuary, all other work—even the building of the Tabernacle itself—is to be suspended on Shabbat.99

Observing Shabbat is one of the ways that those from the nations can become accepted as part of Israel.

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples. (Isa 56:6–7)

Ritual Instructions

As part of the ritual for the Tabernacle, God tells the Israelites about the schedule of daily sacrifices:

Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two lambs a year old day by day regularly. One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight. . . . It shall be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory. (Exod 29:38–39, 42– 43)

This is a daily appointment to meet with God, in person, at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. That level of access to the divine is deeply formative and helped stamp the identity of the Children of Israel. This too continues into the present day, with the daily prayer cycle of the Shacharit, Minchah and Ma’ariv services in the synagogue. As Raphael Zarum explains, “Through these daily acts of remembrance we amalgamate the past into the present and so calibrate a moral compass to guide us in a purposeful future.”100

Detailed instructions are given for the operation of the cult by a dedicated workforce, who are themselves given the job of teaching the people all the laws (Lev 10:11) and the difference between the ritually clean and unclean, the holy and the profane (Ezek 44:23). The priests and Levites become the tradents who are responsible for passing on the culture, the ritual and the tradition to the next generations. Many scholars see the Psalms as part of the liturgy for the Temple in Jerusalem, some suggesting that some of the Psalms contain creedal fragments—statements of who God is and what he has done for his people.101

The books of Leviticus and Numbers provide a detailed operations manual for the work of the cult, Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28–29 in particular providing both lay and professional scripts for the holidays and feasts through the year; the priests direct and choreograph the dance of remembrance and commemoration: “the holiday cycle, the annual calendar and the liturgical cycle typically disrupt the flow of time by highlighting patterns in the group’s experiences.” The tension between sacred and secular time—the one cyclical, the other linear—helps to build a collective memory. Each feast, each puncture or suspension of the ordinary, has its own unique offerings and practice, while sharing a common core that provides a context within the master commemorative narrative, which “indicates the recurrence of historical patterns in the group’s existence.”102


When Jacob first comes to Egypt, he and his family are sent to live in Goshen “for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians” (Gen 46:34). After Jacob and Joseph have both died, a change of Pharaoh brings an administration that looks less favorably upon the now multitudinous descendants of Jacob. Jenkins observes that “classification is rarely neutral.” Slavery and oppression consolidated the identity of the “Children of Israel” and the Exodus itself followed by the years in the desert forged the people into a nation. A minimalist definition of a group—“that its members know that it exists and that they belong to it”103 —allows the mixed multitude to leave Egypt with the Israelites (Exod 12:38); while a much tighter definition—“clearly bounded, internally fairly homogeneous and distinguished from other groups of the same kind”104—allows the exclusion of the “Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian” (Lev 24:10). Seth Sanders wryly observes that the Bible most often speaks to people “as members of a group defined by the very fact that the Bible is talking to them.”105

Throughout the narrative, the Children of Israel are reminded of their beginnings, of where they came from—“You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt; and you shall be careful to observe these statutes” (Deut 16:12)—as the motive for full inclusion: you know what it is like because you’ve been there and done that. The text speaks to the reader as a “you” that is commanded to hear and remember and assumes the people as a basic unit of ritual.106

Part of the identity formation in the Torah specifically defines the Israelites away from the surrounding nations. A number of commandments, summarized by “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes” (Lev 18:3) explicitly set Israel apart from the other peoples. While Hall and Benhabib claim that the key part of the search for identity is establishing difference,107 Jenkins argues for the interdependence of similarity and difference,108 following the balance of the Torah in defining the identity of the Israelites: not only “you shall not” but more “you shall.”

Literary Structure

In the Hebrew Scriptures even the text itself is designed to be easily memorized and rehearsed. Robert Alter points out how the Torah uses type-scenes familiar to the listeners as narrative devices to engage them in an oral recitation of the narrative. As much enjoyment is gained by the audience in recognizing a type-scene as in the variations between the “standard” scene and the changes introduced by the narrator on each occasion it is used.109 Storytelling is critical and foundational:

We endlessly tell stories about our lives, both to ourselves and to others; and it is through such stories that we make sense of the world, of our relationship to that world and of the relationship between ourselves and other selves. . . . The narratives we produce . . . are stories of how we come to be the way we are.110

The use of story creates a common narrative, a sense of belonging and peoplehood. “Solidarity, once it is successfully conjured up, is a powerful force.”111

The phrase “blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine woven linen”112 is used three times in just four verses that deal with the making of the ephod.

They, therefore, shall receive the gold, the blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and the fine linen. They shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, worked into designs. It shall have two shoulder-pieces attached; they shall be attached at its two ends. And the decorated band that is upon it shall be made like it, of one piece with it: of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen. (Exod 28:5–8)

The Hebrew phrase—t’khelet argaman tola’at shaniy v’shesh mash’zar—has quite a complex but also recognizable sound when spoken. In this block of verses the phrase appears directly twice in that form and once with added direct articles and direct object indicators. More, the pointing113— although always on the same syllables for stress and syntactic grouping—uses different tune fragments each time.

The phrase is unique to the book of Exodus, specifically to the instructions for, and the account of, building the Tabernacle. There it is used twenty-six times: in the list of materials needed for the construction (25:4), as components of the curtains (26:1) and the veil (26:31) in the Holy Place, the screen or doorway of the Tabernacle itself (26:36), the gateway into the Tabernacle courtyard (27:16), the priestly garments (28:5–8, 15, 33), then in the repetition of each of the building activities including Moses relating God’s instructions to the people, as well as the skill-set of the master craftsmen overseeing the construction (38:23); finally, though not enumerated by quantity, there is a list of all the items in which these materials have been used (chapters 38–39). The phrase does not appear again in the Hebrew Scriptures, nor is it related in Greek translation in the Greek Scriptures. The high density and repeated use of the phrase within such a short piece of repetitive narrative (the instructions, the execution, the accounts) suggests that this is a mnemonic device, used to string the narrative together.114 The short phrase, composed of just a few words but with a distinctive sound, is repeated in a number of syntactical variants and melodic arrangements, to keep bringing the audience back to the contributions of the people to the making and construction of the Tabernacle—a “long-standing oral tradition,” perhaps “written chiefly for oral presentation”115 when the audience might join in the repeated phrase. Meir Sternberg suggests that this is a plot device enabling the audience to track that what was forecast or instructed was actually carried out.116

The Greek Scriptures

The Greek Scriptures show that not only is Jewish identity maintained in the canonical writings of the early Messianic community, but that there is development of a distinctive identity that builds upon the identity developed in the Tanakh, remains consistent with what has gone before, and yet goes beyond it in Messiah. Alan Kirk observes that “the past, both generating and absorbed into resilient commemorative images, narratives, rituals and texts, flows with its own energeia into the ongoing, creative formation of the life of the community.”117 As the early Messianic communities grew and developed, they incorporated traditions and narrative, ritual and rhyme into their practice and writings to reflect the life the Spirit was building.

Matthew’s gospel is popularly considered to be the most Jewish of the gospels in character. The earliest witnesses spoke of it having been written in Hebrew.118 The phrase “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (Matt 2:15) is repeated (with minor variations) throughout the Gospel in order to remind Jewish readers that they come from the people of the prophets. The Sermon on the Mount, although not in full later-to-be-developed rabbinic style, is essentially a block of halakhic rulings—interpretations and applications of the Torah, similar to those found in the rabbinic writings from this time onward. The words “righteousness” and “father” are used five and fifteen times respectively as keywords in the Sermon, repeating other keywords and phrases throughout the gospel in a memory- and hence identity-preserving manner. The Beatitudes all start with the Greek word μακάριοι, “blessed, happy, fortunate”, a parallel to the Hebrew אַשְׁרֵי, found in the Psalms: “Happy is the man who has not followed the counsel of the wicked, or taken the path of sinners, or joined the company of the insolent” (1:1) or “Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God” (146:5); the vocabulary and style are a reminder of the connections to the Hebrew Scriptures. This specific teaching in the Sermon reminds Jewish readers that the Torah remains a part of the normal Jewish life:119

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:17–19)

John’s Gospel also contains many Jewish references, hooks, and identity triggers, to remind its readers either of their own identity or that Yeshua was a Jew living and teaching in a Jewish world. The Johannine corpus contains social memory hooks such as “we have seen his glory” (John 1:14) showing both an individual and a collegiate memory. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands … that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you” (1 John 1:1, 3) takes the collective memory and explicitly passes it on. Paul’s urging Timothy “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2) is another exercise on social memory propagation. Yeshua’s own words—“every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt 13:52)—also demonstrate the same principle.

Peter’s first letter opens with words of address: “To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Pet 1:1). Either Peter is writing to Yeshua-believers among the scattered Jewish communities around the Mediterranean,120 in the same way as an encyclical letter is sent out by messenger from the Jewish priesthood in Jerusalem,121 or he is making a specific attempt to include Gentile believers into the identity of fellowship of Jewish followers of Messiah. Whether Jew or Gentile they are to be included in the Yeshua-believer super-group, which will generate a “sense of belonging, an identity, into which its members are socialised. This means that thereafter their sense of who they are as individuals includes that aspect derived from belonging to the group.”122

On at least four occasions, Paul makes a point of his Jewish identity (Acts 22:3, speaking to the crowd in the Temple in Jerusalem; Romans 11:1, as part of his argument against God having rejected his people; 2 Corinthians 11:22, in his list of “foolish” boasts; and Philippians 3:4-8, one of the valuable things compared as rubbish against knowing Messiah). In a powerful emotional identification with ethnic Israel123 —this is who I am too—he also speaks to the value of being Jewish:

[T]o them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the [Messiah] who is God over all. (Rom 9:4–5)

Each of these are key words, triggers, which remind Jewish readers of God’s ancient covenant with them.124 Even the words themselves act as a mnemonic device; the string of feminine nouns in verse 4 (adoption, glory, covenants, Torah, worship,125 promises) have, sequentially, singular-singular-plural-singular-singular-plural endings, each with matching definite articles to emphasize the sound alliteration. This has strong resonance with similar sound-based techniques used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

Festivals in the Gospels, Acts and Letters

Jewish festivals make both cameo and mainstream appearances in the Gospels. Pesach is the setting for the Last Supper in all four Gospels. The period of counting of Omer (Lev 23:15–16) can be seen in the early verses of Acts, when Yeshua, at his ascension, tells the disciples to wait in Jerusalem; this is not for an indefinite time, but for the remaining ten days of the Omer until the feast of Shavuot. Shavuot itself is the context of the Acts 2 outpouring of the Spirit, with many of the pilgrims from far-off lands still remaining in Jerusalem after Pesach for the second of the three pilgrim feasts. Shavuot also appears in Acts 20:16, when Paul is on his way back to Jerusalem in time for the feast. Sukkot appears in John 7. Hanukkah—perhaps the most popular feast after the three pilgrimage feasts126—is called by one of its other names, the Festival of Dedication, in John 10:22, when Yeshua is in the Temple in Jerusalem. It also may be alluded to by another name, the Festival of Lights, in John’s prologue—“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9)—as Hanukkah is a likely time for the Annunciation (Luke 1:26–38). The weekly Shabbat makes multiple appearances in all of the Gospels and is mentioned nine times in Acts; it is also referenced twice in the letters.

Encapsulated Liturgy

In the same way that the Hebrew Scriptures include a number of fragments of encapsulated liturgy—the First Fruits ritual of Deuteronomy 26 passage being perhaps the clearest example—and belief statements—the Sh’ma is an obvious candidate here—the Greek Scriptures also embed a number of texts that are considered by some scholars to be encapsulated fragments of early church liturgy. James Ware divides them into two different categories: creedal fragments and hymn fragments.127 An example of the former is:

There is one body and one Spiritjust as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your callone Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:4–6)

Showing strong echoes of the Sh’ma, this passage may be a possible “prototype of the Eastern creeds, with their emphatic repetition of the numeral ‘one’.”128 The latter category is exemplified by:

Let your attitude toward one another be governed by your being in union with the Messiah Yeshua:

Though he was in the form of God,
he did
not regard equality with God
something to be possessed by
On the contrary, he emptied himself,
in that he
took the form of a slave
by becoming like human
beings are.

And when he appeared as a human being,
he humbled himself still more
by becoming obedient even to
death on a stake as a criminal!
Therefore God
raised him to the highest place
and gave him the
name above every name;

that in honor of the name given Yeshua,
every knee will bow—
in heaven, on earth and under the earth—
and every tongue will acknowledge
that Yeshua the Messiah is Adonai
to the glory of God
the Father. (Phil 2:5–11 CJB)

Like Ephesians 4:4–6, this passage based on the Hebrew Scriptures129 may have been used in a baptismal setting,130 or reserved for study.131 A communal ritual purpose is also supposed for 1 Corinthians 11:23–26:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Yeshua on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Notice how this follows Yael Zerubavel’s earlier comments:132 although still recognizable, this passage is radically foreshortened from the Gospel narratives which are themselves abbreviated accounts of a Passover Seder traditionalized from the historical original in the Torah. Proposed as “coming from Christ himself through the earliest apostles as a pre-Pauline tradition that Paul then received and handed on,”133 this is a social memory carried and enforced by the community.

From this brief survey of the Scriptural evidence, we can see that both Testaments carefully use identity and memory development techniques to build and maintain Jewish identity and to incorporate Gentiles into God’s people, based on shared memories and a shared social identity as believers in Yeshua.

In the second part of this article, we’ll take a look at what happens to Jewish identity among Jewish believers in Yeshua in a number of modern contexts including the Messianic Jewish world and the Christian Church. We’ll re-examine the way that social identity and social memory are used and experienced by Jewish Yeshua-believers and discuss whether what we see is predictable or inevitable. How does that work out in practice? What is it like on the ground being a Jewish believer in Yeshua today?

Jonathan Allen received his PhD in Theology from Bristol University in the UK and has taken classes in Rabbinic Studies with MJTI. He writes a weekly Torah commentary which can be found at Some of the material in this article is based on his doctoral thesis, published in 2018 by Wipf and Stock as A Profile of Jewish Believers in the UK Church.

1 Tommy Givens, We the People (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 280.

2 Joel E. Hampton, “The Equal Ultimacy Question in Calvin’s View of Reprobation: Is Predestination Really ‘Double’?” in INTEGRITY: A Journal of Christian Thought, 1 (2000), 104.

3 Jonathan Sacks, Genesis: The Book of Beginnings, Covenant and Conversation (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2009), 298–99.

4 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the ESV, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001).

5 Richard Jenkins, Social Identity (London: Routledge, 2014), 6, 19, 21.

6 Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (London: Penguin, 1969), 13, 84, 112–113, 142.

7 Jan Stets, “Identity Theory,” in Contemporary Social Psychological Theories, ed. Peter J. Burke (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016), 88–110, 88–93.

8 Stets, “Identity Theory,” 93–95.

9 Stets, “Identity Theory,” 104–105.

10 Michael Hogg, “Social Identity Theory,” in Contemporary Social Psychological Theories, ed. Peter J. Burke (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 111–136,111–113.

11 Jenkins, Social Identity, 104.

12 Jenkins, Social Identity, 97.

13 Hogg, “Social Identity Theory,” 115–118.

14 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 17.

15 Hogg, “Social Identity Theory,” 125–126.

16 Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 52.

17 Hogg, “Social Identity Theory,” 120–121.

18 Brian Brewer, “Jewish Believers in Jesus and the New Supersessionism,” in The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supercessionism, ed. Calvin L. Smith (2nd edition; Broadstairs: King’s Divinity Press, 2013), 247.

19 Michael A. Meyer, Jewish Identity in the Modern World (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990), 3.

20 Michael Wood, The Story of England (Harmondsworth: Viking, 2010), 401.

21 Jenkins, Social Identity, 6.

22 Howard Taylor, “Israel and the Purposes of God”, in The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supercessionism, ed. Calvin L. Smith (2nd edition; Broadstairs: King’s Divinity Press, 2013), 344.

23 m.Eduyot 1:5.

24 Aulia Nastiti, “Diasporic Community and European Cultural Identity” (Master’s essay, Jean Moulin Lyon 3 University, no date), 2, accessed June 3, 2014,

25 John E. Joseph, “Identity,” in Language and Identities, ed. Carmen Lamas and Dominic Watt (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 10.

26 Michael Wyschogrod, Abraham’s Promise, ed. R. Kendall Soulen (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), 161.

27 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (New York: Verso, 2006), 6.

28 The key assertion of Jewish faith, Deuteronomy 6:4 and the following paragraph: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Known as the Sh’ma because of the first word in Hebrew, the masculine singular Qal imperative of the verb “to hear or listen.”

29 Hebrew: The people of Israel live!

30 Daniel R. Langton, The Apostle Paul in the Jewish Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 9–10.

31 This is why Moshe numbers the Israelites in the wilderness: “Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers” houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head” (Numbers 1:2), a complete genealogical GPS fix.

32 Steph Lawler, Identity: Sociological Perspectives (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008), 32, 36, 39, 89.

33 Lawler, Identity, 37, 47–50.

34 Jenkins, Social Identity, 88.

35 Lawler, Identity, 37.

36 Hebrew: “the Children of Israel.”

37 Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, We Jews (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2005), 48.

38 From a Yiddish adjective “frim” meaning pious or devout; frum denotes someone who is more observant of Jewish Law than basic halakha requires.

39 b.Sanhedrin 44a.

40 Steinsaltz, We Jews, 49, 50.

41 Deuteronomy 28:15–46.

42 b.Kiddushin 12a.

43 Genesis 42:13.

44 Elliot Cohen, “The Use of Holocaust Testimony by Jews for Jesus: A Narrative Enquiry,” Melila, 6 (2009), 7.

45 The Great British Story, episode 2, “Tribes to Nations,” by Michael Wood, broadcast June 1, 2012, on BBC, DVD (BBC, 2012), disc 1, 33:34.

46 Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, Unlocking the Torah Text: Vayikra (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House, 2010), 131.

47 Pinchas H. Peli, On Repentance: The Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 42, 106; Maimonides, Hilchot Teshuvah, 2.7, in Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, Maimonides Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Teshuvah (Brooklyn: Moznaim Publishing Corporation, 1990), 36.

48 Such as the use of “brothers” in Matthew 23:1–12, particularly verse 8. Also see Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), 544–545.

49 “Fictive kin” are those kin with no biological connection; they may be adopted or included on other bases. See Lawler, Identity, 49–50.

50 Anthony J. Saldarini, Matthew’s Christian-Jewish Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 120.

51 For example Anthony Saldarini, Richard Ascough, J. Andrew Overman and Ulrich Luz, among others, support the idea that Matthew’s gospel was written for or in the context of a specific Jewish-Christian community. This idea is opposed by Richard Bauckham and others who see the Gospels as having been written for all believers; see Richard Bauckham, “For Whom were Gospels Written?” in The Gospels for All Christians, ed. Richard Bauckham (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), 9–48.

52 Susan A. Glenn and Naomi B. Sokoloff, “Who and What is Jewish,” in Boundaries of Jewish Identity, ed. Susan A. Glenn and Naomi B. Sokoloff (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010), 3.

53 Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), 273.

54 b.Bava Batra 109b, b.Yevamot 54b.

55 Cohen, Beginnings, 270.

56 Bamidbar Rabbah 19:3.

57 m.Kiddushin 3:12, based on an interpretation of Deuteronomy 7:3–4.

58 Goldin, Unlocking the Torah Text, 222.

59 Gershon Winkler, The Way of the Boundary Crosser: An Introduction to Jewish Flexidoxy (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1998), 64–67, discusses both Rabbi Yaakov’s position and status in their original context.

60 “CARR 61-68,” Central Conference of American Rabbis, October 1983, accessed June 8, 2015,

61 Pauline Kollontai, “Messianic Jews and Jewish Identity,” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, 3:2 (2004), 197.

62 Sacks, Genesis, 285.

63 “Interview with Prof. Samuel Heilman,” Alan Brill, The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, September 3, 2014,

64 Hebrews 10:25.

65 Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Maxims and Reflections, tr. Elisabeth Stopp (London: Penguin, 1999), 60§459.

66 Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, translated from the 4th German edition 1956 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978), 1:389.

67 Joseph Blenkinsopp, Judaism: The First Phase (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), 15.

68 Hebrew: exile.

69 Blenkinsopp, Judaism, 37, 61.

70 Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, tr. Joseph Ward Swain (London: George Allen and Unwin, n.d.), 427, 375–376.

71 Yael Zerubavel, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 6.

72 According to Ron Eyerman, “the issue of the historical veracity, or fit, between the narratives and real experience remains to be explored”: “The Past in the Present: Culture and the Transmission of Memory,” Acta Sociologica 47:2 (2016), 159–169.

73 1 Corinthians 11:23–26.

74 Matthew 26:20–29; Mark 14:17–25; Luke 22:14–23.

75 Also called “master frames,” Eyerman, “The Past in the Present,” 162.

76 The celebration of Passover is contained in a document called the “Haggadah,” a word meaning “The Telling,” while the celebration itself is known as the “Seder,” a word meaning “order.”

77 Zerubavel, Recovered Roots, 7–8.

78 Notice, of course, that the Eucharist redefines and re-interprets Passover for the new community of believers in Messiah.

79 Zerubavel, Recovered Roots, 9.

80 Jan Assmann, “Form as a Mnemonic Device: Cultural Texts and Cultural Memory,” in Performing the Gospel: Orality, Memory and Mark, ed. Richard A. Horsley, Jonathan A. Draper and John Miles Foley (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011), 71.

81 Alan Kirk, “Social and Cultural Memory,” in Memory, Tradition and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity, ed. Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher (Atlanta: SBL, 2005), 7.

82 Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva, 3:11.

83 Cohen, Beginnings, 58–62.

84 Jonathan Sacks, Exodus: The Book of Redemption, Covenant and Conversation (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2010), 89.

85 At this time, although both biblical and extra-biblical evidence shows that it has been in the past.

86 Kirk, “Social and Cultural Memory,” 7.

87 Numbers 10:10.

88 Numbers 29:5-6.

89 Instituted by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and the Safed kabbalist movement in the 16th century ce, based in part on b. Hullin 60b.

90 Respectively: “spring” or “ripening” (referring to the barley), “radiance” (referring to tree blossom), “strong ones” (referring to ripe fruit) and “withering” (referring to the stubble in the fields).

91 From a root אֵב, meaning greenness in reference to the flowering or blossoming of plants, ed. David J. A. Clines, The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 98,103.

92 Nick Spencer, “Memory, shared narratives and the perils of exclusion,” in The Bible in Transmission, Summer 2014 (Swindon: The Bible Society), 6.

93 Pesach Haggadah, standard text, adopted from m. Pesachim 10:5.

94 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” Pew Research Center, October 1, 2013,

95 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Chapter 4: Religious Beliefs and Practices,” Pew Research Center, October 1, 2013,

96 Shemot 34:22, t.Bikkurim 2:2, m.Bikkurim 3:1-10 (noting the explicit reference to Deut 26:6 in 3:6), cited in Abraham P. Bloch, The Biblical and Historical Background of the Jewish Holy Days (New York: Ktav, 1978), 183–184.

97 Lawler, Identity, 8.

98 Jeffrey H. Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 238.

99 This is derived from the text where Moshe gives God’s instructions for building the Tabernacle to the Israelites, prefaced immediately with the instructions to observe Shabbat, particularly: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day” (Exodus 35:3).

100 Raphael Zarum, “The memories that keep Judaism alive,” in The Bible in Transmission, Summer 2014 (Swindon: The Bible Society), 22.

101 R. W. L. Moberly, Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 213.

102 Zerubavel, Recovered Roots, 7.

103 Jenkins, Social Identity, 6, 13.

104 Rogers Brubaker, Ethnicity without Groups (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 7–27.

105 Seth L. Sanders, The Invention of Hebrew (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, no date), 1.

106 Sanders, The Invention of Hebrew, 4.

107 Stuart Hall, “Introduction: Who Needs Identity,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and P. du Gay (London: Sage, 1996), 405; Seyla Benhabib, “Introduction: The Democratic Moment and the Problem of Difference,” in Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundary of the Political, ed. Seyla Benhabib (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 3.

108 Jenkins, Social Identity, 22-25.

109 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 51–62.

110 Lawler, Identity, 13.

111 Jenkins, Social Identity, 24.

112 Translated by Everett Fox as “blue-violet, purple and worm-scarlet (yarn) and byssus.” Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, The Schocken Bible Vol 1 (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), 397.

113 Pointing, known as nikud, indicates which syllable of the word is to receive stress, which tune fragment is to be used in constructing the melody for the word (or phrase) on the emphasised syllable, and groups words—like English punctuation—into phrases and sentences by joining or separating words with pauses of different lengths.

114 Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987), 367.

115 Alter, Biblical Narrative, 47–62, 90.

116 Sternberg, The Poetics, 376-377.

117 Kirk, “Social and Cultural Memory,” 22.

118 Papias, Irenaeus, Origen and Eusebius.

119 Compare with the titles of Watchman Nee’s Christian classic, The Normal Christian Life and David Pawson’s The Normal Christian Birth.

120 David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary (Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992), 743.

121 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (2nd edition; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 685.

122 Philip F. Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003), 11.

123 Esler, Conflict and Identity, 272.

124 Jan Assmann and Czaplicka, “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity,” New German Critique, 65, Cultural History/Cultural Studies (Spring—Summer, 1995), 129.

125 The Hebrew word avodah is used for “worship”, “service” and “work”. Worship is the divine service or ritual carried out by the Temple cult. The Greek word latreia has a similar overlap in meaning: religious service or worship, H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, In Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1889), 466.

126 Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, 389, 280.

127 James P. Ware, Synopsis of the Pauline Letters in Greek and English (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 38–41.

128 F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), 335.

129 Including Isaiah 45:23, 52:13 and others.

130 Peter T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1991), 205, 257.

131 Markus Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 116–117.

132 Zerubavel, Recovered Roots, 9.

133 Anthony C. Thiselton, 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2006), 183.