Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Exploring the Semitic Roots of Christianity

"Jewish Roots, Semitic Roots, Hebrew Roots and Pagan Roots"


Many people are on a quest to re-discover a more authentic form of Christianity. Indeed, some people are trying to discover the Jewish Jesus and are even rejecting the title "Christian." If you come into contact with this movement you will see that it is extremely diverse. In this manual, we are going to examine some of the issues that arise in the "Jewish Roots" movements-not movements is plural because there are several movements.

The Sacred Name and Restorationist Movements

A "restorationist" movement is a sect that believes that Christianity became hopelessly corrupt in antiquity and needs to be restored. The problem with this ideology is that the church never lost the New Testament. If the New Testament represents the teachings of Jesus and it was never lost-how could it be said that the teachings of Jesus were lost. In a sense, you could think of the Baptist Church and the entire Protestant Reformation as a type of Restorationist movement. But, better examples would be the Jehovah's Witnesses/Seventh Day Adventists, and better yet, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Joseph Smith taught that all spiritual knowledge was lost from the death of the Apostle John until he came.

Some Hebrew Roots organizations do believe that the canon of the New Testament needs to be revised. An example would be Monty Judah, who advocates removing the Epistle to the Hebrews from the New Testament. Many, Hebrew Roots movements now have their own translations of the Bible.

The Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists have a huge influence on the Hebrew Roots movement. Their influence is divisive and controversial but it is there. Michael Rood is a former disciple of the Way International-an organization highly influenced by the Jehovah's Witnesses. Much of what Michael Rood teaches is what he learned when he was a member of the Way International.

The first issue where you see their influence is with the Sacred Name. In the Old Testament, God has two names-one is Elohim-which is used about 2,500 times in the Old Testament. The other "Name of God" is called the Tetragrammaton. This word means "four letters." The letters are YHWH. This Name of God has been translated as "Jehovah" in the past. In the Old Testament period-we know from the text of the Bible and from archeological evidence, that Jews spoke the name "Yahweh." YHWH is used in the Old Testament about 6,000 times. Many scholars think the name of God was Yahweh but it may have been pronounced as "Yehowah." The fact of the matter is the pronunciation is lost and exactly how the Name was pronounced is no longer known with certainty. At about 200 BC, a Jewish sage named Simon the Just introduced the practice of not saying the Name out of reverence. Circumlocutions were used (this means other words were substituted for the Divine Name). The commandment says "thou shalt not use the name of Yahweh your God in vain." Well, if you never say the name Yahweh-then you aren't going to break that commandment. So, the Jews substitute words for Yahweh such as "Ha-Shem," meaning "the Name," and "Adonai," meaning the Lord. For the most part, this is a Jewish practice that has been adopted by Christians. In fact, it seems Jesus himself observed this tradition and used circumlocutions for the name of God and generally referred to God as "Abba, Father," or by the name El, or Elaha in Aramaic. Jewish people find it sacrilegious and deeply offensive to pronounced the "Ineffable Name of God."

Certain "Sacred Name" believe that you must call upon God by Yahweh-or some variation-or you will be damned. And if you don't pronounce it exactly the way that they say you must pronounce it then you are going to hell. There are even groups that say that Yahweh and Elohim and two different God and cast aspersions on those who worship the one or the other.

Bible Versions and Translations

Since the Sacred Name is that important to these people they produce Bible versions that use the Sacred Name. Some of these groups also teach that it is necessary to practice all 613 Commandments of Moses. One of these leaders is named Israel Hawkins and he believes that since Moses and the Patriarchs practiced polygamy-he and his followers would too-since the Law of Moses is the ultimate standard of morality. Hawkins has produced his version of the Bible. Some of these people disagree with calling the Bible-the Bible because the word "Bible" is derived from the pagan city "Byblos." The problem is that the word Bible merely means book and Byblos was actually called Gebal and the people there believed that Elohim founded the city. So, they call the Bible the "Beshora," The Sacred Scriptures-or some other title.

I personally don't have any problem with a Sacred Name Bible, as long as they accurately reflect the text of Scripture. Now there is a plethora of "Hebrew Roots" Bibles and it seems like there is a new one all the time and it seems confusing.

The "Jewish New Testament" and "The Complete Jewish Bible" follow the Jewish tradition and do not use the Sacred Name but use the word Adonai instead.


The Name of Jesus

Having dealt with the name of God, we now move on to the name of Jesus. The name "Jesus," is derived from the name Joshua. This name was originally "Yehoshua" and means "Yahweh is Salvation." Later this name became "Yeshua" and it seems like this is the name that Jesus would have went by. However, it is also possibly that the name was pronounced as "Yeshu." However, the rabbis created an acronym for the name Yeshu-which was "May his name be accursed forever." So, Yeshu-although it may have been how Jesus' name was pronounced was made into a Jewish curse word. For this reason, Israeli Christians now call Jesus "Yeshua," instead of the traditional Hebrew pronunciation of "Yeshu." Certain "Messianics" also argue about how to pronounce the name of Jesus. Some say that "Jesus" means "Hey Zeus!" This is absurd. The Greeks used an I or a J for the Y letter and didn't have an SH sound in their language so they substituted an S. Greek has case endings because nouns such as names must be declined. This is how the "S" was added to the end of the name "Jesus."

What about the Afterlife?

Another area where we see the influence of the Seventh Day Adventist/Jehovah's Witnesses is in the idea of the Afterlife. In the New Testament, Jesus is very clear that he believes in a heaven and a hell and an immortal soul. He teaches that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are with God presently in heaven and taught about a beggar named Lazarus who died and went to heaven. The Adventist movement came out of the Millerite movement of the 1800s. When the JWs/Adventists were developing (they have common origins) séances were extremely popular in America due to the "Spiritualist" movement. To counteract this movement the Millerites began teaching that essentially, there is no life after death-until the resurrection at judgment day. Jesus stood with the Pharisees in their belief in heaven and hell against the Sadducees, a sect that denied the afterlife. So, the Millerites are teaching the opposite of what Jesus taught. The Old Testament teaches that the souls of the dead descend into Sheol where they enter their eternal rest. Many people have become confused because they don't understand what the ancient Israelites believed about Sheol and incorrectly believe that the ancient Israelites did not believe in the afterlife.

Was Jesus a Pharisee or a Karaite Jew-or an Essene?

Nehemiah Gordon is an associate of Michael Rood. He teaches that modern Judaism is Phariseeism. This is true. Modern Judaism did evolve out of the Pharisee movement. Mr. Gordon has rejected the Orthodox Judaism and has embraced what he called "Karaite Judaism." Some of his criticisms of Rabbinic Judaism are valid. (For example-why do Jews call the Old Testament "the Tenach"? It isn't even a word? Some traditions-like how to tie your shoe laces according to rabbinic tradition are tedious.) But, Karaite Judaism is the offshoot of the Sadducee movement. The authentic Karaite Jews are Sephardic Jews who live in Egypt-or the communities that have emigrated from Egypt. Mr. Gordon argues that Jesus was a "Karaite Jew" in that he rejected rabbinic tradition and followed only the Torah. Other people argue that since Jesus agreed with the beliefs of the afterlife held by the Pharisees and since some of his teachings are similar to the famous Pharisee Hillel, then Jesus must have been a Pharisee. Still others will say that since Jesus was baptized and baptized like the Essenes-he must have been an Essene. My position is that Jesus is the Son of God and didn't belong to any sect of Judaism. Just because Jesus affirmed certain beliefs of different sects doesn't mean that he belonged to them.


Is Greek bad?

Michael Rood and others teach that we have to "leave behind our Greco-Roman thinking" and rediscover our Hebraic Roots. What is "Greco-Roman" thinking and why is it so bad?

What should be recognized at first is that Greek has had an influence upon Judaism. The word "Synagogue" is a Greek word. As is Sanhedrin. In the Passover-there is the Afrikomen-another word derived from the Greek.

The Septuagint, which is an ancient translation of the Old Testament into Greek, was translated by and used by Jews. Also, the Septuagint is an important witness to the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. Important Jewish thinkers such as Philo of Alexandria and Josephus wrote in Greek (Josephus claimed that he wrote an initial draft of the Jewish War in Aramaic.) The Apocrypha-which is Jewish literature from the inter-testamental period-is largely written in Greek.

The New Testament is also written in Greek-although certain portions may have had a Hebrew/Aramaic original. I think that the Greeks brought tremendous human progress. They were great thinkers and advance knowledge and have had a profound effect on human history. I don' t understand what the purpose is of demeaning the Greeks.

Jewish and Christian Relations

The apocrypha is ancient Jewish literature. It was preserved by Christians and not by the Jews. The Books of Maccabees tells the story of Hanukkah. Christians preserved it-Jewish versions of the Hannukah story are inaccurate and are derived from Maccabees. (I am referring to the Megillath Antiochus.) During the Crusades, Christian bishops protected Jewish communities from rogue crusader who carried out anti-Semitic attacks. (See "God's Battalions" by Rodney Stark.) Saint Augustine argued that Christians should grant the Jewish communities toleration. The Catholic Church began the practice of using Unleavened bread for the Eucharist in an attempt to reconnect with the Jewish roots of the faith. The first printed Hebrew Bible was a joint project of Jews and Christians. The Catholic Church also prepared the Complutensian
polyglot-it was a parallel Bible with different versions of the Old Testament including Hebrew and Aramaic made in the early 1500s, before the Protestant Reformation. The early church affirmed the Old Testament and rejected the anti-Semitic teachings of Marcion in the mid 100s. Origin of Alexandria around 180 produced an important six columned edition of the Old Testament called the Hexapla. Saint Jerome lived in Israel and studied Hebrew from Rabbis there and translated the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew. He also noted that the Apocryphal books were not part of the Old Testament. So, at times, Christians and Jews had cordial and productive relations and cooperated in Bible scholarship.

Anti-Semitism is very dangerous and the church must be honest about its history regarding the Jews-but we need a balanced approach. Historical revisionism that exaggerates the mistreatment of the Jews or demonizes the entire church isn't helpful. There are Jewish sources that are polemical and strongly anti-Christian. Such as the "Toledoth Yeshu," an anti-Gospel that has circulated among the Jewish community for centuries. In the "Toledoth Yeshu," Jesus is a black magician who is raped by Judas Iscariot. People have also found offensive passages from the Talmud and took them out of context in order to incite anti-Semitism. What I am saying is that Christians should be familiar with the church fathers before rejecting them all based on one or two remarks that may seem anti-Semitic today.

The Hebraic Mindset

Many of the Hebrew Roots/Messianics/Yahwist and other groups believe that in order to be acceptable to God you have to "think Hebraically." But what does this mean? Some people believe that it is necessary to know Hebrew well-and to think in Hebrew-before you can understand and be received by God. Other believe that the "Hebraic Mindset" means observing the Jewish or Biblical feastdays (or "the Feast of Yahweh"), keeping a Kosher diet, observing the Sabbath and all of the 613 Commandments of the Torah that apply to you.

Still others, such as Scott Cloud, teach that you have to think cyclically. Apparently, Easterners don't use linear thinking or apply logic the way westerners do. However, Ravi Zacharias protested and said that he grew up in India and that he never knew what cyclical/non-linear thinking was until a westerner asked him about it!

"Cyclical thinking" was actually invented by Benjamin Lee Whorf and is part of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which includes this premise "Linguistic Relativity"-the theory developed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf that states that the structure of a language determines or greatly influences the modes of thought and behavior characteristic of the culture in which it is spoken. Whorf developed his ideas around the Hopi Indians and said that they thought cyclically. However, others who have studied the Hopi Indians have contested this. Whorf's ideas are very controversial and are denounced by respected linguists. Detractors such as Eric Lenneberg, Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker have criticized him for not being sufficiently clear in his formulation of how he meant language influences thought, and for not providing actual proof of his assumptions. Most of his arguments were in the form of examples that were anecdotal or speculative in nature, and functioned as attempts to show how "exotic" grammatical traits were connected to what were apparently equally exotic worlds of thought. Whorf also had no formal training in linguistics and was amateur. Linguists also strongly doubt that vocabulary, declensions, or conjugations actually shape thinking or a world view. Certain Hebraic Roots teachers teach that it was the Hebrews, not the Hopis, who used cyclical thinking. However, the Bible is a linear history and John Romer, a prominent historian and archeologist, has argued that, with the Bible, the Jews were, in a since, the fathers of linear history. Instead of writing annals-the Jews wrote a history from creation until their own day in the Holy Bible. These ideas about cyclical thinking are speculative and controversial. The "proof" that the Jews thought cyclically is that they were agricultural and farming has cycles. But how is that unique to Jewish culture or different from agricultural culture in the west? How does thinking cyclically impact our lives or bring us closer to God?

Some things need to be realized when dealing with the Hebrew mindset.

First, let me say that I believe that the Biblical languages are important and through studying the original languages we can clarify what the Scriptures say-and perhaps connect to the ancients in a unique way.

Hebrew developed out of an earlier language that linguists now call "Proto-Semitic." Arabic, Aramaic and Ethiopic are all related to Hebrew. The Canaanite language was virtually identical to Hebrew. During the time of the Prophets, Israelites speaking Hebrew were worshiping idols. Did the Canaanites speaking a language akin to Hebrew make them more spiritual? Were idolatrous Israelites more spiritual because they spoke Hebrew?

When Jesus approached Nicodemas he told him that he needed to be "Born Again." Speaking Hebrew and Aramaic and knowing Jewish lore didn't properly align Nicodemas with God. He needed a change of heart. Jesus didn't say that "For a man to enter the kingdom of God he must speak Hebrew"-he said that someone must approach God like a little child. Paul said "knowledge puffs up-but love edifies." Biblical languages are important-but love and humility and repentance are more important.

Hebrew is very similar to Arabic. I have lived in many Arabic cultures. The people are very nice-but they are backwards. Their mentality-a form of a Semitic mindset-is the reason that they are backwards. We-in the Greco-Roman influenced Western world are ahead of them-and our way of life is superior to theirs. What made western civilization great is its fusion between the Semitic spirituality and Greco-Roman rationalism. Our culture has brought progress to mankind.

What is going on is that political correctness, which is basically a religious cult, has taken control of academia. Western Civilization is looked at in a negative light-self-loathing liberalism-and what are perceived to be non-western cultures-are for the most part looked upon in a positive light. Also, you have the philosophy of "victimization." The West has victimized the non-west. Therefore we need to move away from our western civilization. These ideas, which are false, are influencing even Christians and conservatives.

Hebrew or Aramaic or Hebrew and Aramaic

Some people in the Jewish Roots movement look upon Hebrew as a supernatural language. It is viewed as God's language. Well, what about Aramaic? Some people in the Jewish roots movement are strongly opposed to Aramaic. But these are people who don't really know about Judaism. Aramaic is an important Jewish language and there is strong evidence that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his first language. (My position: Jesus spoke Aramaic-but also knew Hebrew and Greek. So, I think Jesus was tri-lingual-but primarily an Aramaic speaker.)

The Syriac Gospels

Now, we do have an ancient version of the Gospels in Aramaic-or more specifically, an Aramaic dialect called Syriac. This language is very close to the Aramaic spoken by Jesus and is closely related to Hebrew.

However, as someone who has studied Aramaic and the Syriac Peshitta, it is obvious to me that the Syriac is a translation from the Greek. It is important, an ancient translation of the gospels back into the language spoken by Jesus-but we should not try to make of it something that it isn't.

Some people have tried to pass off a Medieval translation of the Gospel of Matthew in to Hebrew as the original Gospel of Matthew. The Church fathers claimed that Matthew had written in "Hebrew." It is debated whether the fathers meant Aramaic or the language we now call Hebrew when they said "Hebrew." But, the church fathers have preserved several fragments and alternate reading found in the "Hebrew Matthew."

Important information about the "Jewish Roots" of Christianity can be found in the Church Fathers-with important information in the Didache, the writings of Eusebius and in the Ascents of James-which was written by an early sect of Christian Jews called the Ebionites.

We need to have sound research and not make unfounded and sensational claims.

Jewish Culture

People need to realize that Jewish culture has changed considerably from the time of Christ. Reflect upon how much American has changed in 200 years-or for that matter-50 or even 10 years. We shouldn't assume that just because the Jews have a tradition, a custom or a teaching today that it goes all the way back to the time of Jesus.

An example would be the prayer shawl. I haven't seen evidence that prayer shawls, the tallit, go back to the time of Jesus. It is argued both ways-but there isn't evidence. The Torah says that tassels must be worn at the corners of your tunic. But what do you do when people don't wear tunics anymore? The Jews began the practice of the prayer shawl so that they could maintain the ancient tradition. The movie "Jesus of Nazareth" attempted to highlight the Jewish identity of Jesus-and that is commendable-but practices shown in the movie-men wearing curls of hair in front of their ears and women attending synagogue behind a screen segregated from the men-and Jewish customs that developed long after the time of Jesus.

Just because the Jews have a custom, a practice or a teaching, doesn't make it right. For instance, the Jews claim that Melchizedec is Shem. I don't believe that is true. They also make Abraham a contemporary with Nimrod-something else I find unlikely. Sometimes, Jewish commentaries are helpful-but like anything else, they need to be analyzed and scrutinized to see if they are accurate.

Paganism in the Church?


Once again coming from a Jehovah's Witness/Seventh Day Adventist influence, there is a huge focus on paganism among those interested in Hebrew roots. Easter is pagan. Christmas is pagan. Pretty much everything is pagan. I think that we should call "Easter" the Pascha-like it is called other European languages. However, there is no hard evidence that the word "Easter," is derived from a pagan word. The "Venerable Bede" thought it was, but experts on Norse Mythology believe he was wrong. There was no Norse goddess named Easter. Bede didn't know what the word meant and he falsely assumed it was a pagan name-because he didn't know much about what the pagan believed. Certain Hebrew roots believe that Jesus was not crucified upon a cross because a cross is a pagan symbol. The Jehovah's Witnesses have Jesus crucified upon a pole with his hands over his head and one nail going through both palms (or wrists). The reality is that someone crucified in that position with die of positional asphyxiation in a matter of hours and it would be unnecessary to break the victims legs to hasten death. There is no evidence that a cross was used as a pagan symbol or that "T" stands for Tammuz. Besides, in Babylonia, Tammuz was called Damuzi. He was a shepherd god who was condemned to the otherworld by his wife Inanna (also called Ishtar). Certain Hebrew roots people compare Christianity with Mithraism-when there are much more differences between Mithraism and Christianity than similarities and our knowledge of Mithraism is limited.


I think that the focus on paganism found among some Hebrew Roots people is not edifying. I have never heard anyone talk more about paganism than people who are into the Semitic Roots. And I have found, based on my research, that much of what they say about paganism is incorrect.


They find similarities between Christianity and paganism that are very tenuous. However, based on recent archeological finding, we have found many similarities between the beliefs of the Jews and their pagan neighbors. One example could be temples. Temples to Baal and other pagan gods had two columns at the entrance and the exact same layout as Solomon's Temple. The false argument that Christianity is derived from paganism-can also be made about Judaism. It would be more productive to study the Bible and develop a prayer life that spend time obsessing over paganism.






Jesus-the Passover Lamb


One effective way to reconnect with our Jewish roots is to attend a Passover Seder. Going through the Passover Seder opens new insight into the Last Supper and the Passion. However, some Messianics believe that Jesus died before Passover dawned and was crucified when the Passover lambs and goats were slaughtered. In this interpretation, the Last Supper was not a Passover Seder. There is debate about this. Some people think that the slaughtering of the animals was spread over two days to accommodate the crowds or perhaps Jesus observed the Passover a day early for some reason, such as he was following a different calendar. I think this is an interesting debate-but what we can agree upon is that Jesus is the Passover Lamb-and that he fulfils the Passover Supper-as the Bread of Life.


Our Semitic Heritage


While Christianity spread to the West, it also spread to the East. Christian cultures shaped by the Semitic world-view have survived. The Coptic Christians in Ethiopia and Eritrea speak Semitic languages and have preserved ancient Jewish literature and practices among their customs. The Maltese Christians are also Semitic Christians and very devout. They church was founded directly by the Apostle Paul. Although severely threatened, the Assyrian Christians still survive and still speak Aramaic, the Semitic language spoken by Jesus. The Church of the East, formerly called the Nestorian Church, was highly evangelistic and planted churches in India, China, Mongolia and off of the coast of Africa-all before the year 700. All Middle Eastern Christians have been and are suffering persecution from Moslems. Islamic radicalism is becoming a great threat to all the free peoples of the earth. There have also been Jewish believers throughout history-such as Bar Hebreus, Sholem Asch and Alfred Edersheim. Sometimes we can learn from the past-instead of pursing after whatever new thing seems to be out there.

Stephen Andrew Missick

About the Author

Reverend Stephen Andrew Missick is the author of The Assyrian Church in the Mongol Empire, Mar Thoma: The Apostolic Foundation of the Assyrian Church in India, and Socotra: The Mysterious Island of the Church of the East which were published in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies (Volume XIII, No. 2, 1999, Volume XIV, No. 2, 2000 and Volume XVI No. 1, 2002). He is the author of The Language of Jesus: Introducing Aramaic, The Ascents of James, Saint Thaddeus and the King of the Assyrians, The Ennead and Christ the Man. He is an ordained minister of the gospel. He graduated from Sam Houston State University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Rev. Missick has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and has lived among the Coptic Christians in Egypt and Aramaic Christians in Syria. He also served as a soldier in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and 2004. While serving as a soldier in Iraq he learned Aramaic from native Aramaic-speaking Iraqi Assyrian Christians. Rev. Missick is the writer and illustrator of the comic book "The Assyrians: The Oldest Christian People," the comic strip Chronicles: Facts from the Bible and the comic book series The Hammer of God which are available from The Hammer of God comic book series dramatizes the stories of Judah Maccabee and Charles Martel. He has also served as a chaplain in the Army National Guard in Iraq during his second deployment in 2009 and 2010.

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