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Issues Within the Messianic Movement:
Two-House (Ephraimite) Theology
By Michael Bugg
Unlike most religious movements in history, the Messianic movement cannot be ascribed to any one source. Of course, we ultimately find our source in the Sacred Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation, but the modern movement, which became prominent only at the tail end of the 20th Century, was not the result of a single teacher establishing a congregation, and then that congregation establishing another, and so forth. Rather, we pretty much appeared all over the world almost spontaneously. While on the one hand we believe this to be evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit, on the other it means that there is a great diversity of bodies that call themselves “Messianic.”
This article will be the first of several dealing with those diverse teachings and viewpoints, establishing the position of Congregation Beth HaMashiach and the Union of Conservative Messianic Jewish Synagogues (UCMJS) as well as explaining the weaknesses we find in the alternative positions.
This first article will deal with Two-House Theology, sometimes called Ephraimite Theology.
Introduction: What Is Two-House Theology?
Two-House centers on two main theses: First, that the tribes of the Northern Kingdom, usually referred to as the Ten Lost Tribes, did not disappear into history, and second, that many if not most Christians today are descended from them. We actually agree on the first point, as we will show; it is the second point that is a matter of contention.
It should be noted that the degree to which the second thesis is taken differs from group to group. Some, taking very seriously Yeshua’s statement, “I wasn’t sent to anyone but the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mat. 15:24), believe that all Christians are actually descendants of the Northern Kingdom. It was in response to these individuals that the MJAA wrote its white paper: The Ephraimite Error: A Short Summary. However, in the interest of fairness, we must note that not all take this extreme stance. For example, TNN Online outlines their beliefs as follows:
Based on these three paragraphs, there are indeed some truthful statements concerning what TNN Online believes and advocates concerning the reunion of all Israel:
1. We do believe that many non-Jewish Believers (“Christians”) may be flesh-and-blood descendants of the Northern Kingdom Israelites captured and dispersed by Assyria in 722-721 B.C.E.
2. We do believe that non-Jewish Believers in Yeshua are coming to a knowledge of their Hebraic heritage and should obey God’s Torah.
3. We do believe that one day people of the scattered House of Israel/Ephraim will return to the Land of Israel, just as the House of Judah has, in fulfillment of critical end-time prophecies such as: Isaiah 11:14; Jeremiah 3:18, 30:3; and Zechariah 10:7, 10.
However, there are some mistruths in these statements as well, with which TNN Online as an advocate of the Two-House teaching does not agree:
1. We do not believe that every non-Jew or “Christian” is a physical Israelite.
2. We do not believe that the scattered descendants of the Northern Kingdom of Israel/Ephraim are exclusively contained in areas populated by the British, i.e., Anglo-Saxons and Celts, or for that same matter, Northern Europeans.
We believe that the physical descendents of the Northern Kingdom (house of Israel / Ephraim) who was taken captive by the Assyrians are still alive in the earth and that the God of Israel knows where every descendant has been scattered (Amos 9:9). We believe that this house of Israel is not so easily distinguishable. . . There are physical descendants from the Northern Kingdom who have accepted the redemptive work of Yeshua / Jesus, the Messiah, in every generation. However, the exact percentage that has done so is unknown. Their percentage within the entire body of Messiah is also unknown. . .
We believe that the body of Messiah includes those from among the nations who are not physically descended from the twelve tribes of Israel.
It is good that so many leaders of the Two-House movement are repudiating the idea that all Christians are really lost Israelites from the Northern Kingdom, because the Scriptural case against it is devastating.
Good News For All Nations: The Case For Gentiles
Let us take a moment to establish the Scriptural position of Gentiles in God’s economy. From the very first book, Genesis, the Bible tells us that it was always God’s plan to first save the Gentiles and only then to re-establish Israel.
The story of Joseph sets the pattern. Joseph, of course, is so much an archetype of the Messiah that the rabbis actually spoke of a Mashiach ben Yoseph who would be a suffering servant who would die for the nation (b. Sukkah 52a). Joseph, like Messiah, was hated by his brothers because a) he had his father’s favor, b) he was prophesied to rule over them, and c) he gave a bad report about them. Therefore, when they had the chance, his brothers threw him into a pit and sold him to the Gentiles for the price of a slave, again, just like Yeshua. And like Yeshua, he was eventually raised to the right hand of power, and ruled over the whole world.
And like Yeshua, he fed the whole Gentile world—people to whom he had no blood-kinship—the bread of life without which they would have died before being reconciled with his natural-born brethren.
We see this prophecy expounded upon by Isaiah (11:10-13):
Note that Isaiah prophesies not two groups, but three that would follow the Lord in the last days: Gentiles, then Israel and Judah. If indeed Yeshua was “only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” not just during His original ministry, but for all time, then Isaiah should only speak of two groups: Israel and Judah.
Later, Isaiah again speaks of aliens to Israel that would be joined with the House of Israel in the service of the Holy One:
While clearing the Temple of the moneylenders and merchants, Yeshua Himself quoted the above passage, rendering it, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations . . .” The word translated “nations” here is ethnesin (ἔθνεσιν), which is the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word goyim, gentiles. It is so rendered in the LXX, indicating that long before NT times, the scholars of Israel understood the “foreigner” (nekar, נכר) and “peoples” (‘amim, עמים) to refer to Gentiles rather than Israelites. (This may seem to be belaboring the point, but we wish for there to be no doubt as to exactly what this passage means.)
And finally, let us take a look at the passage on which the decision of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 hinged, Amos 9:11-12. Since Acts records the council as using the LXX, let us look at translations from both the original Hebrew and the LXX to understand the passage’s full meaning:
The difference in translation between these two renditions is not a matter of concern because they both contain the key phrase, “the nations who are called by My name.” The Jerusalem Council, in determining the question of whether Gentile converts should have to undergo circumcision and become fully Jewish (i.e. ceasing to be Greek, Roman, etc.), used this passage to sum up their decision for two reasons: First, because it clearly says that there would be Gentiles called by God’s Name—not Jewish proselytes and not only the lost sons of Israel! And second, because just as Moses and Isaiah prophesied, the calling of these Gentiles would happen before the restoration of David’s tabernacle, representing his dynasty.
These four passages, as well as others that we could consider, firmly establish that it was always God’s plan to have Gentiles turn to the Branch of Jesse, to receive the bread of life, and be called by His Name before Israel’s covenantal relationship with the Messiah was restored.
Other Problems With Two-House:
However, even though most mainline Two-House ministries admit that not all believers are long-lost descendants of the “Ten Lost Tribes,” there is still a predominant assumption by most who come into such fellowships that they personally are. We do not state this without reason; Congregation Beth HaMashiach has had long-time members leave because we would not accept them as Israelites other than in the sense of having been adopted into the family (see Adoption Theology). For many, the fact that they are convicted in their hearts that they should keep the whole Torah and have been given such a great sense of love and kinship with the Jewish people is all the evidence that they need to convince them that their calling must be through their blood . . . rather than through His Spirit. And having convinced of themselves that they are long-lost descendents of the Northern Kingdom, all evidence either for or against that position is filtered through their desire for it to be true.
However, an assessment of Scripture that takes all of the evidence into account demonstrates to us that even if it were true that 2700 years ago one had an ancestor who was taken out of the Northern Kingdom, it wouldn’t matter.
What Makes An Israelite?
No one within the Messianic movement denies that God made specific promises to the blood descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob which are just as valid and ongoing today as they were 4000 years ago. However, Scripture has been clear from the very beginning that God reserves the right to prune His olive tree, which Rabbi Sha’ul (Paul) explains in detail in Romans chapter nine. Indeed, there were several requirements that, if not kept, resulted in the “cutting off” of the individual from the nation.
Circumcision: God said to Abraham, “As for you, you will keep my covenant, you and your seed after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your seed after you. Every male among you shall be circumcised. . . . The uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people. He has broken my covenant." (Gen. 17:9-10, 14)
Note that to both Moshe (Deu. 30:6) and Sha’ul (Rom. 2:29), circumcision of the heart—that is, being an Israelite in one’s heart—was of greater importance than circumcision of the flesh. In fact, circumcision of the flesh without the inner heart is useless.
Keeping Pesach and Hag Matzah: “This day shall be to you for a memorial, and you shall keep it a feast to the LORD: throughout your generations you shall keep it a feast by an ordinance forever. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; even the first day you shall put away yeast out of your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel.” (Exo. 12:14-15)
But the man who is clean, and is not on a journey, and fails to keep the Passover, that soul shall be cut off from his people. Because he didn’t offer the offering of the LORD in its appointed season, that man shall bear his sin. (Num. 9:13)
Keeping Shabbat: You shall keep the Sabbath therefore; for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. (Exo. 31:14)
Keeping Yom Kippur: However on the tenth day of this seventh month is Yom Kippur: it shall be a holy convocation to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; and you shall offer an offering made by fire to the LORD. You shall do no kind of work in that same day; for it is Yom Kippur, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God. For whoever it is who shall not deny himself in that same day; shall be cut off from his people. Whoever it is who does any kind of work in that same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. (Lev. 23:27-30)
Interestingly, those in the Church who claim to be “true Israel” or “spiritual Israel,” ignore all of the above requirements, but harp on one other:
Heeding the Prophet Like Moshe: I will raise them up a prophet from among their brothers, like you; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I shall command him. It shall happen, that whoever will not listen to my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him. (Deu. 18:18-19)
This is due to a slightly different rendition in Acts 3:22-23:
For Moses indeed said to the fathers, ‘The Lord God will raise up a prophet for you from among your brothers, like me. You shall listen to him in all things whatever he says to you. It will be, that every soul that will not listen to that prophet will be utterly destroyed from among the people.'
The reading given by Peter cannot be found in the LXX or either of the Targums, so we have to assume that this is Peter’s intentional paraphrase to make a point: That those who rebelled against God’s chosen leader could hardly remain within His people. We will return to the significance of this in a moment.
In addition to the above requirements, there were certain sins that could also result in being cut off from Israel, all of which can be summed up as sins of idolatry and profaning God’s Holiness. Note that the first three, those connected with pagan worship, precisely correspond to the Four Laws given by the Yerushalayim Beit Din (Acts 15:20, 29):
After this there are various commands that all had to do with profaning the place where the Holy One had put His Name:
And finally, one could be cut off from Israel by sinning “with a high hand”—that is, presumptuously and willfully (Num. 19:20). In fact, one of the leading messages of the pre-Exile prophets was that if Israel was going to intentionally sin, then the Holy One didn’t want their sacrifices!
Now, Replacement Theologists like to point to Acts 3:22-23 as proof that “Israel of the flesh” is cut off from God’s promises and replaced by the Church. First of all, if that’s the case, the Church has likewise been cut off for not observing circumcision, Shabbat, Pesach, or Yom Kippur! But secondly, if we accept that one is only judged according to the light he is given, then why would the Jewish people who have never accepted the authority of the B’rit Chadasha be held accountable according to its deliberate paraphrase? Rather, they would be held accountable to the original rendering, that God would “require it of them”—and indeed, our people have suffered God’s punishment for rejecting His Prophet.
But even more importantly, those who have rejected the Christ presented to them by the Church on the basis of Deu. 13:1-6 [12:32-13:5]—which is to say, pretty much all subsequent generations after the 1st Century!—were right to do so. We would argue that they did not reject the true Prophet after Moshe, but only the false image that most Christians recast Him in. They are no more responsible for that than Yoseph’s brothers were for not recognizing him when he was dressed as an Egyptian!
The real question that the Church should ask itself is not whether today’s Jews are broken off from the Olive Tree (Israel), but whether the Church has fulfilled Sha’ul’s implied prophecy and been broken off for its own faithlessness (Rom. 11:20)!
This same issue plagues the Two-House Movement! The argument of the Two-Housers is that 2700 years ago, their ancestors were removed from Israel, and completely assimilated into one or more Gentile cultures, including that of the Church—but despite very deliberately breaking nearly every one of the above commandments that the Church ruled to be part of the “old law,” nevertheless they should still be considered to be of the house of Israel. Such a scenario is utter nonsense Biblically, and an insult to those who kept to the covenants and commandments to Israel despite millennia of persecution!
The Samaritans: A Case-Study
Shortly after the forced exportation of the Northern Kingdom, the Assyrians imported Gentiles from other parts of their empire to take the Israelites’ place. These foreigners interbred with whatever remnant remained in the Land as well as the Levites that the Assyrians would later bring back to teach the people how to appease the Holy One (1Ki. 17:24-41), and became known as the Samaritans. The Samaritans, though having a strong thread of Israelite blood, nevertheless mixed the worship of the true God with that of idols, and as a result, Zerubbabel rejected their offer of help in rebuilding the Temple (Ezra 4:2-3). The Samaritans reacted by claiming that Mt. Gerazim was the true place where the Holy One had placed His Name and setting up their own temple there (see John 4:20), even changing their copies of the Torah to reflect this. They also repeatedly joined with Gentile nations in persecuting the Jews.
Was Zerubbabel right to exclude the Samaritans? The accounts of him in Ezra and the prophecies spoken of him by Haggai and Zechariah are wholly positive, and we have no record that God disapproved of his decision, despite the fact that many of the Samaritans would be descendants of Levites, and therefore entitled to assist in the Temple service.
Yeshua Himself settled the matter definitively when He instructed His disciples, “Don’t go among the Gentiles, and don’t enter into any city of the Samaritans. Rather, go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mat. 10:6)—which means that these Samaritans, who had a far better claim to being descendants of Israel than any in the Two-House movement today, were not “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And if the Samaritans, then only 700 years removed and still keeping the Torah (moving the place of God’s Name and lapses into idolatry aside) were not the “lost sheep” that our Lord spoke of, then on what basis can those whose ancestors have not kept Torah for 2700 years make a better claim?
The simple fact is that thanks to the large numbers of Jews who were forcibly assimilated into European culture, the average Two-Houser would have a better and more recent claim to some small Jewish blood than to being a lost Israelite. But just as having an obscure Jewish ancestor who converted to Christianity centuries ago does not make one Jewish, having an even more obscure Israelite ancestor who became a pagan and whose descendents converted to Christianity well over a millennium ago make one an Israelite. Those ancestors were long ago “cut off” for failing to keep the covenant of Mt. Sinai. They lost their identity and peoplehood and assumed another.
Lost Tribes Found!
Moreover, we are fast learning where the Lost Tribes migrated, and they did not disappear into Christian Europe (which the possible exception of Dan, but the above argument would still apply to them). These peoples, many of whom maintained traditions that came directly from the Torah that were passed down orally, include:
The Wikipedia article contains an overview of these claims, links to articles regarding specific claims, and more importantly, links to non-wiki sources for those who wish to pursue a cursory study.
Some Two-Housers might argue that the above groups have no better claim than they to be the descendents of Israel. However, in at least one case, the evidence is clearly better: That of the Bene Menashe:
The Answer: Proselytization
The dilemma of the Bene Menashe no doubt strikes a chord with many in the Two-House movement, who know what it is like to feel trapped between two worlds. However, it does serve to highlight one of the major errors in attempting to use a claim to Israelite blood as a back-door: Israel is a nation as well as an ideal, and Judaism a peoplehood as much as a religion. A person whose ancestors left that nation and had cut the ties of peoplehood could hardly expect for discovery of that ancestry to result in instant reconciliation.
Imagine for a moment that an American tried to claim British citizenship on the basis that he was descended from British colonists. It could hardly be expected that the British government, even recognizing the man’s ancestry as valid, would instantly confer on him all the rights of citizenship, including immigration, free health care, and a government pension. Nor could it be expected that the common British people would instantly accept this strange chap who insists on calling a lift an elevator, a torch a flashlight, and that silly game that Americans play “football” to accept him as one of the family. He would need to immigrate, win citizenship, and work to integrate himself into the culture first, and even then it would probably be a generation before the family was really considered British.
In the case of Israel, the danger of assimilation as well as the danger of parliamentary shenanigans putting the Jewish people into danger has made it vital that the process be reversed to first winning citizenship and only then being allowed to immigrate. And even recognizing that the Bene Menashe are truly children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and Manasseh), the split between the two kingdoms happened nearly three thousand years ago—formal reconciliation by way of proselytization and circumcision, restoring the tribe into the Abrahamic covenant in the way demanded by God Himself through His Torah, is the only route to take.
While Israel has always been comprised of the blood descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, from the very beginning the Holy One has made it possible for those who wished to integrate (to various degrees) to enter into the community as ger (foreigners, non-citizen residents), and to circumcise for full citizenship if they chose (Exo. 12:48). A person who circumcised severed all ties with his previous nation and family:
In other words, when a person circumcises and enters the mikveh (the ritual immersion pool), the Gentile he was is considered to have died, and he is “born again” as a Jew (does this sound familiar?), all of his previous relationships having been broken off by that death. A proselyte could even theoretically marry his mother or sister if they proselytized at a later date, so radical was the sundering of previous relationships considered. Actually doing so was forbidden on the basis that it would slander the religion of the true God, however.
The Apostles did not require circumcision for Gentile believers—in fact, they discouraged it in all but special circumstances (as in the case of Timothy)—for two main reasons: First, it was a distortion of the Good News to claim that Jews were saved by faith (that is, trust in and loyalty to the Holy One; see our Notes on Romans), but that Gentiles were saved by faith plus becoming Jewish. Second, because if all of the Gentile converts partook in circumcision, thereby making this radical departure from their nationalities and even their families, this would break God’s promise that He would call Gentiles by His Name and that Gentiles would rally to the Branch of Jesse, the Messiah, alongside both Israel and Judah.
However, there is evidence that the Apostles did not intend an absolute prohibition against circumcision in Gentiles. The first is the aforementioned case of Timothy. He had a Jewish mother and a Greek father, and apparently his father neither proselytized himself nor allowed his son to be circumcised. Therefore, Timothy was not an Israelite under the terms of the Abrahamic Covenant; indeed, it is likely that the rabbis of his time would not have accepted the marriage as valid, so Timothy would have been considered a mamzer (illegitimate). Paul circumcised him so that Timothy could accompany him to Jerusalem without questions about his parentage—the radical break from the old life meant that no one would be able to call his parentage into question, as the mamzer Timothy was dead, and Timothy the full son of Abraham had been born anew.
The second comes from 1 Corinthans chapter 7:
So far so good; this seems to be a cut-and-dried injunction against proselytizing and circumcising into the Jewish people. However, the passage continues:
Here we see Paul dealing with two other “conditions” one might have entered the faith under, slavery and marriage. In both instances, his general council is to remain as one was called, though he allows for social mobility according to each person’s circumstances. Now, no orthodox Christian or Messianic group would claim that the above passage forbids marriage among the already redeemed, or even that marriage is to be discouraged on its basis. Therefore, the slightly stronger language about not becoming circumcised (or uncircumcised, which is all-too-often forgotten by the Church) should not be taken as forbiddance, but rather strong discouragement. The case of Timothy shows that Paul intended that there would be exceptions to the rule, albeit few and far between.
In the same way, Judaism has actively discouraged proselytization as a rule—in fact, a rabbi is required to tell a prospective proselyte “no” at least three times—preferring that “righteous Gentiles” or “God-fearers” remain as they are, but every sect of Judaism allows it. Synagogues practicing Messianic Judaism should follow the same pattern, with each proselyte being considered by the rabbi on an individual basis and requiring long study to weed out those who have no business circumcising and make sure that those who do know exactly what they are getting into. Let us be clear: This is not a call for Messianic synagogues to start proselytizing every Christian who enters their doors. Mass conversion of unprepared, untaught, and/or unstable individuals could only do harm to our witness to our traditional Jewish brethren, and would result in long-term harm to the Jewish people.
Let us also be clear that proselytization in a Messianic synagogue is not at the present time, and may never be before our Lord returns, legitimate in the eyes of the larger Jewish community. Messianics who are born Jewish (i.e., having a Jewish mother) are currently considered to be, at best, on the fringes of Jewish society, so it can hardly be expected that the community as a whole would be willing to accept proselytes from our fellowships. Bear in mind, Messianics are not being singled out here: Israel does not currently recognize proselytes of Conservative or Reform synagogues as eligible for aliyah either.
In this author’s case, I did not proselytize with the expectation of being accepted for aliyah or that the community as a whole would accept me. I did so for three reasons: 1) Because the Holy One has given me a love for the Jewish people that makes me regard all Jews as my brothers and sisters, regardless of whether that is ever returned; 2) because He has called me to one of those who live fully as a Jew and, if necessary, to suffer and die as a Jew; and 3) because I am marrying a Jewish woman with a Jewish daughter, and I will not do anything to cause any Jew to assimilate. Our children will be raised fully Jewish, keeping the traditions of our people.
Nevertheless, though it is not a panacea such a program, if carefully combined with an emphasis on God’s unprejudiced love for all of His children, both Jew and Gentile, would provide an answer to those into whose hearts the Spirit has placed a yearning and a calling to draw closer to our Jewish brothers and Hebrew roots, and provide a more legitimate one than Two-House offers.
One must readily agree, on the basis of Revelation chapter 7 among numerous other passages, that God does indeed know who the descendents of the Northern Kingdom are, and that He intends to regather them to the Land as well. And indeed, we are seeing many such descendants being discovered today all over the world, men and women who have kept a knowledge of who they are and have even kept whatever commands of the Torah that they were able to pass down by tradition.
Many Two-House teachers, such as Monte Judah and Eddie Chumney, rightly deny that the Gospel is for “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” only. However, while acknowledging the place of Gentiles in God’s plan and heart, their emphasis on the fate of the Northern Kingdom invariably draws those who believe that they personally are long-lost Israelites, resulting in the de-emphasis of the universality of the Gospel for all people. We have demonstrated why, even if the “Ten Lost Tribes” migrated into Europe (or wherever) 2700 years ago, it doesn’t matter, for God is clear that those who refuse to keep certain commandments are cut off from Israel—not as a matter of salvation, but of peoplehood.
The solution to the heart the Spirit is giving to so many of Gentile birth today is not to distort Scripture or supplant another people, but rather the path that the rabbis have required of even those they accept as having come from the lost tribes: A careful, slow program of proselytization which is designed to weed out those who lack the commitment to walk into the next round of gas chambers with the rest of the Jewish people.
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