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    Introducing Your Jewish Friend to Yeshua, by Nessim and Surey

Messianic Jews in Ancient Georgia

The Curious Case of Kartli

No, this isn’t about Messianic Jews in Georgia, USA.This is about Georgia, somewhere north of the terrible fighting now going on in Syria and Iraq, and south of Russia. This is about Messianic Jews over 1500 years ago, hundreds of years after the earliest ‘Jesus Movement’ among the Jews of Jerusalem and beyond. Ancient accounts published in recent decades tell an amazing story of how Jews far northeast of Jerusalem came to faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Messiah, and how they became the foundation for the later Christian church in their region.

In the early fourth century, expansion to the Jewish communities in Georgia, between the Black and Caspian Seas is recorded in the accounts of St. Nino. Tamila Mgaloblishvili and Iulion Gagoshidze record that St Nino, “co-equal of the Apostles and the Illuminatrix of Georgia” was sent on a mission to Kartli by her uncle Iovenalius, Patriarch of Jerusalem.’ Arriving in the town of Urbnisi,

…she tarried a whole month staying with local Jews. Thence she proceeded to Mtskheta, the capital of the kingdom, and once there, she also established closer relations with local Jews to whom she eventually began to preach Christianity. Those who listened to her and accepted what she said were also Jews – the first followers of Christ in Georgia. [1]

While it is not believed that St. Nino was Jewish herself, her familial connection with Iovenalius in Jerusalem suggests that she would have been familiar with the Palestinian Jewish Christian community, or NMJM which was spread throughout the region of Syria. This is corroborated by her strategy which was to first stay with Jews, suggesting her familiarity and comfort with the Jewish people.

In fact, it is hard to be certain of the accuracy of Moktsevai kartlisai (The Conversion of Kartli)[2] from which our information comes. That makes the story all the more interesting for our purposes. “The first missionaries to arrive in Kartli were most probably adherents to the ancient Palestinian Christian tradition, and the archetype of the life of St Nino, the Illuminatrix of Georgia, ought to be regarded as having been evolved and recorded in the community of the Judaeo-Christian residents of Mtskheta.”[3] So we can see – as it were – a continuation of the Pauline policy of going to the Jewish community first, and we can see that in the eyes of St. Nino, or at least in the eyes of those whose work she is credited with, the Jesus Movement had its natural home among the Jewish people.

Once again, themes that emerged in the book of Acts emerge in the Georgian account. Just as in Acts 8:1 some of the community were dispersed from Jerusalem resulting in the spread of the Gospel, so it was a few years later during the Jewish Revolts, resulting in a field for the Gospel to spread to two centuries later.

…an analysis of the archaeological and written sources currently at our disposal gives us sufficient grounds to make the following conclusions: Firstly, a fairly large group of Jewish immigrants penetrated into Georgia after the Jewish Wars, …. Secondly, among the Jews who came to settle in Kartli in the first-second centuries there were originally also Judaeo-Christians who had broken from the Jews in the fourth century, …. And finally, Hellenistic Christianity was established in Kartli under King Mirian (at the end of the third decade of the fourth century), yet despite this, considerable traces of the ancient Judaeo-Christian tradition still survived, lingering both in everyday life and reflected in the written monuments of ancient Georgia. [4]

This meant that centuries later, the Jewish origins of Christianity in Georgia had left their discernible imprint, even on the liturgy of the Georgian church. Knowing that liturgy, Mgaloblishvili and Gagoshidze state “We know that the Judaic oral tradition – the so-called aggada (‘haggadah’) occupied a place of conspicuous prominence in Early Christian divine service.”[5] The evidence from Kartli, then, is of a NMJM that operated as a community. Not much is known of its strategy in terms of spreading its message, and nothing is known regarding its outward proclamation, but it left significant archeological remains which have been found in the modern era. It may be that in the waning years of the Roman empire its strategy was merely to persevere and survive, a specifically community-centric approach.

The Life of St. Nino leaves us a fascinating account of outreach among the Jewish people by one (or ones – possibly NM Jews) who came from a society similar to their own. Their method appears to have been one of participation in Jewish life on the basis of belonging to, or at least a comfort within, the Jewish community. It was from within the community that the preaching of Yeshua began, and the first “converts” were people in that same milieu.


[1] Tamila Mgaloblishvili and Iulion Gagoshidze, “The Jewish Diaspora and Early Christianity in Georgia,” in Ancient Christianity in the Caucasus, ed. Tamila Mgaloblishvili, Caucasus World (Richmond: Curzon, 1998), 40.

[2] The Moktsevai Kartlisai is one of a number of documents discovered in St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, in 1975. It is “one of the main components of the Georgian historical chronicle Kartlis tskhovreba (The Annals of Georgia).” Antony Eastmond, “”Local” Saints, Art, and Regional Identity in the Orthodox World after the Fourth Crusade,” Speculum 78, no. 3: 707.

[3] Mgaloblishvili and Gagoshidze, “The Jewish Diaspora and Early Christianity in Georgia,” 46.

[4] Ibid., 58.

[5] Ibid., 46.

4 Responses

  1. Daniel — Could you please clarify your acronym “NMJM”?

    • NMJM = Nascent Messianic Jewish Movement. This was part of a larger paper which made that clear, but to my chagrin, it is not clear here.

    • OK, thanks. Now that you’ve interpreted its meaning, perhaps I might challenge the notion of describing a movement of Jewish messianists in fourth-century Georgia (Gruzia) by the term “nascent”; although I suppose you are trying to use that term to associate it with the original Jewish movement among Rav Yeshua’s first-century disciples as distinct from the virtually independent establishment of later movements in mid-nineteenth-century Europe and mid-twentieth-century USA.

  2. What became of the earlier initial comment from “19iamwilliam56”? I can imagine that one might criticize it as less than germane to the above article; but if I had not found it in my email, I would not have seen this article at all. [:)]

Comments are closed.

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