Why Study Hebrew Language and Culture?
by Kenneth R. Mullican, Jr.
Why should I be interested in the Jewish roots of my Christian faith? My faith has served me well for many years just as it is. My salvation is secure; I'm heaven-bound; I'm working for the Lord. Besides, I'm a medical microbiologist, not a theologian. Why study Hebrew language and culture when I'm not even Jewish?
I believe the answer can be summed up in just one word--Jesus. Yes, Jesus who came as the Jewish Messiah, Yeshua, whose very name means "salvation." God, in His infinite wisdom, made the plan of salvation so simple that it can be understood in any language, in any culture, at any time in history. Yes, of course I know Jesus in an experiential way--He's my personal savior. And yet, how much better can I know Him if I can relate to Him in the context of the language and culture of the time period and place he walked on earth. To know Jesus even more intimately, I must meet Him in the context of Jerusalem, rather than in the context of Athens or Rome. That is, I must somehow reach behind the centuries that separate me from the first century body of believers in Jesus. I must strip away the accretions of western thought, interpretation, and practice, and attempt to think like the people thought who wrote the Book--or at least to understand how they thought. What did the text mean to those who read it and who practiced its precepts?
Jesus was born a Jew in a Jewish culture, received a Jewish education, studied and lived by a Jewish Holy Book--the Old Testament portion of our present Bible. He kept the Jewish feasts and gave added meaning to them through His own life. When He taught, He used Jewish methods, and used Jewish idioms when He spoke. He expressed Jewish humor. He trained Jewish disciples who became the leaders of His body of believers on earth. The first church, established in Jerusalem during the Feast of Pentecost, was Jewish. The first missionaries who carried the gospel to both Jew and non-Jew were Jewish. So, right away I can see that a lot of Jewish effort went into bringing salvation to me. In light of this knowledge, how could I choose other than to study the language and culture of my Lord, the language and culture of most of the Bible? How could I harbor even the slightest amount of antisemitism in light of my debt to Jewish people?
Since I have begun my quest for the Jewish roots of my faith, the Bible has literally come alive. Names of people and places which were once glossed over now have meaning as I discover their Hebrew derivation and pronunciation. The Lord's Supper, or Communion, which Jesus instituted as a memorial to Himself, has clearer meaning since I discovered that Jesus chose a portion of the feast of Passover to which He gave special meaning. Biblical passages have become clearer with the understanding of Jewish customs and methods of teaching. And one of the most exciting things I have discovered is that many of the walls of partition that separate believers come down when we view Jesus and His Church in its first century context, devoid of the accumulated burden of western thought and customs.
Am I suggesting that most believers today don't really know Jesus and are not engaged in a meaningful relationship with Him? Am I suggesting that our churches have become so cluttered with pagan ritual that they are devoid of meaning and offer no pleasure to God? Of course not! I am simply suggesting that we take a long, hard look at the religious condition of ourselves and our churches in the light of the Jewish origins of our faith. What was the Church that Jesus established really like? How do we measure up? Are we willing to examine our traditions in the light of Jewish language and culture, or do we feel threatened when we consider the potential loss of our comfortable traditions?
Finally, we must consider whether we are content with our present religious experience, or do we dare to consider Jesus and His Church in their original Jewish context? Choosing not to study Hebrew language and culture certainly won't keep you out of heaven and certainly doesn't make you a second-class church member. But please consider the possibility that you could be missing an opportunity to experience our Lord and the biblical message in a fresh and meaningful way. May we never become complacent in our attitude and thereby limit our understanding of biblical truth. Rather, may we keep an open mind in our pursuit of biblical understanding that we may fulfill the imperative of 2 Timothy 2:15, "Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth."
Ken was reared in Oklahoma and holds a BS in Zoology and an MA in Medical Microbiology, both from the University of Oklahoma. Ken and Lenore attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary prior to appointment to the Baptist Hospital in the Gaza Strip, where they served five years. Ken worked with hakesher.org.
Lenore was reared in Israel, daughter of former Jerusalem pastor, the late Dr. Robert L. and Margaret Lindsey. She holds a BS in Nursing from the University of Oklahoma, an MA in Biblical Literature and an MA in Advanced Biblical Languages, both from Oral Roberts University. She teaches Modern Hebrew at Oral Roberts University as Assistant Professor of Modern Languages.
Yavo Digest, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1987
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Last update 17 May 2020