They believe Jesus died for their sins — so why do some Christians observe Yom Kippur?
Last Passover, Jewish Twitter erupted over Christian Seders. Now, Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, is joining the Christianity club, and Jwitter is just as upset.
Christians observing Yom Kippur isn’t exactly new, but it does seem to be increasingly widespread. This time, the discourse seems to have started in large part with a tweet from Bruce Stokes, an anthropologist at California Baptist University.
“This week Judaism and many Christians observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is the holiest day of the Jewish religious calendar,” he tweeted, along with a picture of texts that are traditionally read on Yom Kippur, as well as selections from the New Testament; he did not include the Book of Jonah, which Jews traditionally read during Yom Kippur services. (Stokes did not reply to a request for comment.)
This week Judaism and many Christians observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is the holiest day of the Jewish religious calendar. pic.twitter.com/JDC2PdKc9T
— H Bruce Stokes, PhD (@DrHBStokes) September 11, 2021
The tweet only has a single like, but there are dozens of comments Jews and Christians alike, all criticizing the idea of Christian Yom Kippur. Another tweet, from the TCT Network, a Gospel television channel, similarly met frustration and anger in the comments.
Christian Passover Seders are often connected to the idea that the Last Supper was a Passover meal. But the arguments for observing Yom Kippur are less obvious. While Yom Kippur is mentioned in the Bible — as is a Passover meal, at greater length — Christian theology generally understands Jesus’s death to have fulfilled and transcended religious laws.
While most Christians believe that moral laws, such as the Ten Commandments, still apply to them, they believe that ceremonial and civil laws do not — which includes keeping kosher, mixing fibers and observing all festivals, including Yom Kippur.
Romans 10:4 says that “Christ is the culmination of the law so that there might be righteousness for everyone who believes.” Hebrews 8:13 is even more clear: “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.”
This is particularly relevant when it comes to atonement; Christian theology posits that Jesus died for the sins of humanity, and that everyone is thus already forgiven through his sacrifice. This means that a day of atonement, every year, is superfluous.
So why do Christians observe Yom Kippur? It varies, depending on the congregation and discipline. Some do so in an attempt to connect more deeply with the life and practices of Jesus. As Jon Levenson, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Harvard Divinity School, told the JTA, “There’s this notion that church tradition has gotten farther and farther from the real word of God, and that somehow the Jews and their Bible is closer to the real word of God.”
Others focus on the holiday because they see it as theologically significant, albeit in a different way than Jews do. Jesse Rogers, a Twitter user who was defending Christian Yom Kippur in the comments of a tweet, commented that his congregation’s observance centers around meditating on Jesus’s love for “even those who killed him.” He also said that “every Yom Kippur dinner ends with the sharing of snacks and a small prayer.”
This, of course, made me curious; Yom Kippur dinner? I reached out to better understand his practice.
Via Twitter direct message, Rogers explained that his congregation focuses on the idea of Jesus as the scapegoat. This term comes from Leviticus, which directs how to make a sin offering on Yom Kippur with two goats, one of which will be chosen as a sacrifice and slaughtered to atone for sins. This, of course, projects neatly onto a Christian understanding of Jesus’s death.
Rogers said that his congregation reads from “the usual books” on Yom Kippur, which includes Leviticus and Numbers from the Torah, and Hebrews from the New Testament. They also read the sections of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark about Jesus’s death on the cross, and his betrayal by Judas Iscariot.
“During the day, until sundown, most of the elders fast but it is quite unusual so it isn’t a Must Do. Some have some light snacks during the day but try to keep a sense of seriousness and observance,” Rogers wrote, explaining that after sundown, the somber mood of the day changes into a joyous celebration of Jesus’s arrival as the Messiah, and their collective salvation.
While it isn’t a “day off” according to Rogers, it is a “very important event” for the congregation,, and one that is growing larger each year.
Many Jews responding on Twitter see Christian observance of Yom Kippur as a harmful appropriation of Judaism. Some of the harm is practical: they pointed out that when Christians observe a holiday but don’t take time off, it can make it harder for their Jewish coworkers to ask for the day off. Other issues are more conceptual, and rooted in the historical violence Christians have committed toward Jews over centuries. This includes reframing Jewish rituals and texts to be about Jesus, which many see as an attempt at Jewish erasure.
As one person on Twitter pointed out, however, reframing Judaism to center around Jesus is, more or less, how the entirety of Christianity developed. We might be fighting a losing battle.