Abstract: Based on a multi-sited study of five Messianic Jewish congregations in North America, this paper analyses the widespread tendency for gentile (non-Jewish) adherents to hint about having ‘Jewish DNA’. I argue that Messianic Judaism’s theology and social structures promote the search for Jewish roots while also suppressing it, which results in the grassroots circulation of hints in a ‘semi-public’ register. Bringing together work by Kim Tallbear on gene talk and Veena Das on rumours, I frame these hints as unfinished stories that may benefit believers within religious communities oriented around individual seeking. However, my second point concerns how such ‘hints’ serve as, what Ritchie Lowry calls, ‘a primary means for informal social control’. The semi-public genre encourages informal strictures, often based on the racialisation of ‘Jewish DNA’. I end by exploring another aspect related to registers of disclosure regarding my role as a fieldworker who conceals other people’s secrets.
Abstract: Messianic Judaism, a network of congregations that incorporate Jewish ritual into evangelical worship, is one branch of a fast-growing trend among Christians globally towards ‘Jewish affinity’. Drawing on a multi-site comparison in North America, this article examines one of Messianic Judaism’s most significant internal debates: should non-ethnically Jewish ‘gentile believers’ (GBs) obey biblical laws? It argues that GBs do not simply imitate Jews badly, as outsiders and their own leaders often believe. Rather, their actions are best characterized as mimesis in two complementary forms: mimesis of Jews and ‘mimetic discipleship’ of Jesus-the-Jew. Taken together, these forms offer a heuristic tool sufficiently capacious to explain both individuals’ propensity for Jewish practice and the socially specific ways it is constructed. I conclude that Jewish affinity reflects a key problem in contemporary Christianity, namely what happens when people in one religion (Christianity) come to believe that their God incarnated in the body of a man they now associate with another religion (Judaism)?
Abstract: In early 2000s, a large group of Gogodala-speaking villagers in the Western Province (WP) of Papua New Guinea, led by a man I refer to as Henry, claimed to be members of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Henry and his supporters arranged for the visit of Tudor Parfitt, then Director of the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of London, to WP. In this paper, I suggest that an ongoing local interest in ‘origins’ has been framed in light of biblical teachings, and this more recent claim of a connection between the Gogodala ancestors and the Lost Tribes of Israel. I explore the generation of such ideas and claims through an examination of the significance of babala (‘rules’ or ‘laws’) as practices vital to the maintenance of village-based life, and biblical teachings on behaviour and practice focused on by the local Unevangelised Fields Mission. In this context, I explore the implications of the conjuncture of babala and the Bible, and the visits by Parfitt and his team, through the recent development of a ‘Messianic Church’ in Balimo with explicit forms of worship associated with Judaism.
Abstract: This article explores how an evangelical community in southern California can embrace disparate worship modalities—formalistic/anti-formalistic, Jewish/Christian—as legitimate and acceptable moral options. It argues that a major engine driving the acceptance of a previously excluded worship form is the way that Jewish rituals become framed within a particular Christian model of time. The meta-ritual discourse of religious leaders and lay people connects the ritual context to other moments in Christian narratives, opening up a pocket of biblical temporality where divine phenomena can crystallize into material worship forms. The model of time I discuss instantiates distinct aspects of Christian metaphysics—immanence/transcendence, spirit/absence/incarnation—at discrete periods in salvation history. The ethnography and argument presented here suggest that attention to discourses that connect different temporal contexts may help us understand how theological ideas drive shifts toward both exclusion and greater inclusion of disparate worship forms in Christian communities.
Abstract: Messianic Judaism is an American-born movement of congregations that hold evangelical beliefs and follow Jewish practices. Scholars have viewed it chiefly as a new religious movement (NRM) or a controversial branch of Judaism. As a result, they have downplayed or ignored its largely evangelical Christian base. The first study of ‘gentile believers,’ this article argues that Messianic Judaism is best understood through the lens of religious seeking, a trend usually associated with alternative spiritualities and still under-theorized vis-à-vis conservative Christians, like evangelicals. First, it traces why Messianic Judaism appeals to growing numbers of North American Christians. Second, and more broadly, it argues that seeking is a spiritually satisfying religious practice that, for evangelicals, reiterates central themes of born-again life. Their experiences also clarify the limits that may constrain religious seeking; they seek to deepen and actualize a biblical worldview in religious sites viewed as proximate to their own.
Abstract: While most studies of Messianic Jews focus on how they grapple with anxieties of in-authenticity in relation to the broader Jewish community, this article considers how adherents understand their faith as a unique form of authenticity. On one level, both Messianic Jewish claims of authenticity and critics of Messianic authenticity reflect the same cultural logic of what I call the “evaluative grammar of authenticity.” The evaluative grammar of authenticity values causal/metonymic indexes over manipulated symbols and is undergirded by a suspicion that general appearances are symbolically manipulated in order to mask actual indexical underpinnings. This article argues that the strong stance on Messianic Jewish authenticity in this community is facilitated by the employment of the evaluative grammar of authenticity within a model of reality strongly influenced by the eschatology and epistemology of American Christian fundamentalism. The indexical underpinnings of the cosmos within this model of reality make it logical to conceive of the Messianic Jewish movement as a manifestation of authentic biblical religion. This mode of authenticity is briefly compared to that reflected by critics of Messianic Jewish authenticity who tend to employ this evaluative grammar within a more natural/historical model of reality. This ethnographic example is useful for exploring some of the basic contours of conflicts over authenticity, including how the value-laden domains of knowledge and agency are implicated in these conflicts. It also illustrates how the evaluative grammar of authenticity exemplifies a shared cultural value that, due to its internal logic, tends to engender division and cultural heterogeneity as much, or more, than it engenders cultural consensus.