An Essay by Gerald Sigal
It was in Antioch, Syria, that "the disciples [of Jesus] were first called Christians" (Acts 11:26). The term "Christian" (Greek, Christianos, "followers of Christos") is formed from Christos, "Christ," and indicates "Christ's adherent's," "those who belong to Christ," or are "devoted to Christ." It results from a common practice of the first century that identified adherents of an individual by attaching the termination -ianos (pl. -ianoi) to the name of the leader or master. The term "Christian" occurs only three times in the New Testament writings, and each time it is used by outsiders (Acts 11:26, 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16).
The term Christos is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Mashiach, "anointed one." Christos is anglicized as "Christ" and Mashiach is anglicized as "Messiah." In English, the suffix -ian, "of," "one relating to," "one belonging to, or "resembling," is attached to the word "Christ" to form the term "Christian." In English, the suffix -ic, "of," "one pertaining to," or "one characterized by," is attached to the word "Messiah" to form the term "Messianic."
The Greek-speaking Jews of Antioch were not likely to have referred to the disciples as Christians, "followers of Christos," that is, "followers of the Messiah," since this would have validated Jesus' claim to that title. Only from Gentiles could they have received this name, for "Christ" was a mere personal name to Gentiles, whereas to Jews it meant "Messiah" and they would not have called the followers of Jesus "Messiah's adherents."
As we see, Gentiles were the first to refer to the disciples as "followers of Christ." Jews would not have used this term and the text does not indicate that it was a Christian self-designation. What then did Jews call the followers of Jesus and what was the term or terms used by Jesus' disciples for self-designation? From the New Testament we learn that the Jews referred to the early followers of Jesus as "the sect of the Nazarenes" (Acts 24:5). This, in all likelihood, reflects what some early followers of Jesus called themselves. According to the New Testament, the self-designation this group gave to themselves varied with time and place. They are called "disciples," mathetai (Acts 11:26), "believers," pisteuontes; pistoi (Acts 5:14, Romans 1:16; Acts 10:45, 1 Timothy 6:2), "brothers," adelphos (Acts 6:3, James 2:15), and "saints," hoi hagioi (Acts 9:13, 1 Corinthians 1:2). The movement's adherents apparently referred to the overall group as "the Way" (e.g. Acts 24:14, 22).
As often happens with names given by outsiders to a group, even if initially derogatory, the group eventually adopts the name and prides itself in it. This is exactly what happened to the term "Christian." Thus, we know what first century C.E. Jews called the followers of Jesus; we know what somewhere between 40-44 C.E. Gentiles began to call this group; we know what terms this group initially applied to itself and the self-designation that Greek-speaking followers of Jesus later adopted to describe themselves. But, where does the term "Messianic Jew" fit into this? Nowhere in the New Testament do we find this self-designation. Furthermore, none of the Christian sectarian groups claiming descent from the original followers of Jesus used the term "Messianic Jews" or "Messianic Judaism."
"Messianic Jews" and "Messianic Judaism" are modern terms used by many missionary-minded Christians and Christian organizations with a commitment to convert Jews to Christianity. Frustrated, in their efforts to make significant inroads into the Jewish community, these individuals and organizations developed a crafty presentation of Christianity to Jewish people based on a deceitful use of Jewish religio-historic heritage. Jewish tradition is utilized to establish a cultural identification with the goal of reaching Jewish people with the "gospel." Finding that most Jews are repulsed by Christian conversionary tactics and by such self-designations as "Hebrew Christian" and "Jewish Christian" missionaries began to approach Jews with the term "Messianic" substituting for "Christian."
As we have seen, etymologically these two terms can be traced back to words with similar meanings in Hebrew and Greek respectively. However, to apply the term "Messianic" in connection with the words "Jew" or "Judaism," when in actuality referring to doctrines specifically associated with Christianity, is outright dishonest. The missionaries' sole purpose is to communicate to Jewish people who do not believe in Jesus that believing in Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, Virgin Birth, and Incarnation of God as a man are very Jewish. Nevertheless, whatever their self-designation, no matter how these missionaries deny they are Christians or put a Jewish veneer on their doctrines and claim they are more Jewish than ever before, what they profess is not Jewish but Christian.
The terms "Messianic Jews" and "Messianic Judaism" have no roots in New Testament usage. That volume makes no connection between the use of "Christian" by Greek speaking people and a hypothetical Hebrew/Aramaic rendering of the term as "Messianic." There was simply no borrowing and translating into their own language of the term "Christian" by Hebrew/Aramaic speaking followers of Jesus. The term "Christian," no matter how it is now rendered into other languages remains a Gentile expression of self-designation. The original Jewish followers of Jesus and their physical and spiritual descendants shunned it. Only the Gentile church accepted it.
In sum, the modern self-designation "Messianic Jew" has no scriptural support. It is a term devised as part of a scheme to attract Jews to a Christian sect whose teachings derive from the Gentile church.