At first glance one would imagine a messianic Jew to be a Jew who counts him or herself among those Jews who anticipate the coming of the Jewish Messiah. However, as the term is currently used, it refers to Jews who acknowledge Jesus as their Messiah. For them, in the person of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah has already come, and they await his return much as other Jews await the (first) coming of their Messiah.
However, there is more. The first Jews who acknowledged Jesus as Messiah made no divine claims for him. They saw him as a person whose righteousness and obedience to God were rewarded by “adoption” into “Sonship.” They presented this as having happened in retrojected steps – last when God raised Jesus from the dead; when God accepted his death on a Roman cross as martyrdom; when God acknowledged him as son during his “transfiguration;” at his baptism by John in the Jordan when God proclaimed him son; and, at the earliest moment, in his’ “begetting” as son in his mother’s womb. Some of those early Jesus-Jews (such as some branches of the Ebionites) did venture further, claiming that the earthly Jesus was the heavenly Messiah made manifest, or that the heavenly Messiah or the holy spirit descended into Jesus, the mortal man. In no case, however, did Jesus’ early Jewish followers make the claim that Jesus, their Messiah, was also God.
Claims of Jesus’ literal deity thus were never part of the original, monotheistic Jewish message about Jesus. On the contrary, Jesus’ literal deity was virtually a creation of Gentile, Hellenistic committees convened in the fourth and fifth centuries. Ultimately, these church councils adopted an incarnational christology that insisted that Jesus was ontologically God, i.e., God by nature, and this became the primary Christian claim about Jesus. From that point on, it was necessary for authentic Christians to acknowledge Jesus not only as Messiah, but as God. Christians accepted Jesus’ deity. Those who denied ths doctrine could by definition not be Christians. These unbelievers and heretics, of course, included Jews. More importantly – and paradoxically – they included Jesus’ original Jewish followers, who the church condemned as “Judaizing” heretics.
Messianic Jews (such as those associated with the “Jews for Jesus” movement), however, not only accept Jesus’ Messiahship. They – with orthodox Christians – also accept his literal deity. In this they break with the original Jewish movement, which acknowledged Jesus as Messiah, adopted son, risen spirit seated at God’s right hand… but not God. Ironically, modern messianic Jews, far from replicating historical messianic Judaism, align themselves with Hellenistic Gentile Christianity. They are not so much messianic Jews as Jewish converts to establishment Christianity. Were they to authentically replicate the earliest Jewish christologies, they would abandon the paganized notion of Jesus as a literal incarnation of a “triune” God. Then, of course, they would no longer be Christians. But they would truly be messianic Jews – with roots in the original Jewish Jesus movement.