DO GENTILES NEED HEBREW?
PART ONE, Vol. 1, No. 2
If you are one of the multitude "which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues" (Revelation 7:9) who worship the God of Israel, do you also need to study Hebrew? You are not one of the 144,000 (Revelation 7:4) of the twelve tribes of Israel that the Revelator saw in his vision, nor are you descended from those among whom the Word of God came, originally spoken in the Hebrew language. Neither did your ancestors likely hear Paul speaking to them "in the Hebrew language" in ancient Jerusalem (Acts 21:40; 22:2); nor would they have understood it if Jesus had spoken to them in that language, as he did to Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 26:14).
True, neither you nor your ancestors needed to know Hebrew in order to experience the salvation of the Gospel and its fruits. For that matter, they didn't (nor did you ) require any great knowledge of Scripture in order to grasp the simple message of salvation. Of course, they were time and again urged by preachers and teachers on the basis of Scripture to study the Word of God and to immerse themselves in it.
Now, if you've been truly bathing yourself in God's Word, originally delivered to Jewish patriarchs, prophets, sages and apostles, how much of a Gentile do you think you are? Have you come to realize who the heroes of your faith are, what their culture was, their mentality and worldview? The Apostle Paul wrote once to the Corinthian Christians living in the heart of pagan Greece: "I want you to know, BRETHREN, that OUR fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea..." (I Corinthians 10:1-2). You may contend that Paul was only speaking of his own Jewish ancestors in this excerpt. But was he speaking only to his Jewish BRETHREN? If so, why did he write just a few sentences later: "Now these things happened to them (the ancient Hebrews) as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come" (I Corinthians 10:11)? Were these words openly for the instruction of the Hebrew Christians in Corinth, if there were any? Hardly! For in writing to the Ephesian Christians in Asia Minor, as he had written to the Galatians and to other Christians emerging from paganism, he had a revolutionary message to give. It was addressed to people totally alien to "the commonwealth of Israel...far off [from the God of Israel] ... who have been brought near..." (Ephesians 2:11-19).
Yes, your ancestors were Gentiles. You have inherited or learned an ethnic or national culture developed in a geophysical context apart from the people of Israel (but probably much influenced by them), and yet..."you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow citizens..." (Ephesians 2:19). With the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites? With the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans? No! With the people of Israel, the seed of Abraham!
You will perhaps say: "We are spiritual Jews now, spiritual children of Abraham." But according to Scripture, only "spiritual Jews" or "spiritual children of Abraham" represent the real thing. "For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly," Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, adding, "nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart" (Romans 2:28-29). This echoes the clear teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures from the Torah (the Books of Moses) onward. "Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart," Moses wrote in the Book of Deuteronomy (10:16). The Prophet Jeremiah, reproaching Israel, declared during a period of national apostasy: "...Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab...all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart" (Jeremiah 9:26).
Wait a minute! Doesn't the Bible in its fullest message teach that "there is neither Jew nor Greek" (Galatians 3:28)? So why all this concern about Jews and children of Abraham? Unfortunately, for centuries Christians have misunderstood this teaching of Paul written to the Christians in Galatia, who were set upon by those who desired to bring them under the yoke of the Law of Moses. Since that time, how often it has been misapplied to mean that the Jew who comes to faith in Jesus is obliged to sever all ties with his own people and culture and, in effect, to become a Gentile! Actually, the context of the passage seen in the full light of Scripture should lead to the reverse conclusion.
Just look at the complete passage: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise." Now, in Jewish culture of Paul's time, the woman was considered inferior to the man, the slave inferior to the free man, and the non-Jew inferior to the Jew. (In fact, devout Orthodox Jews have preserved echoes of this value scale in their morning prayers when they recite a threefold benediction: "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has not made me a Gentile...a slave...a woman." But Paul declares here that believing Gentiles are to regard themselves as "Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise." Which promise? The promise made by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Israel to the Hebrew people. So actually, it is the gentiles who, in Paul's beautiful imagery of the olive tree (Romans 11:17-24), are grafted in as wild olive shoots among the natural branches of Israel. And they are to stop being gentiles and become Abraham's offspring! Immediately the question comes to mind: What of the Jews, the physical descendants of Abraham?
A common teaching has been promulgated that God totally rejected the physical, historical Israel and replaced her with the "Gentile" Church. Therefore, this Gentile body, "the Church," could appropriate all the blessings of the Hebrew Scriptures to itself (and, of course, leave the curses and condemnations to the Jews!). But this is a terrible distortion of the plain meaning of Scripture. True, "a hardening" has come upon PART (not all!) of Israel, and they have "stumbled" (Romans 11:11,25). But "GOD HAS NOT REJECTED HIS PEOPLE [Israel] WHOM HE FOREKNEW," Paul declared passionately (Romans 11:2), and He will finally save the people of Israel (Romans 11:26). To doubt God's saving power for His ancient people would be tantamount to doubting His saving power toward the "ingrafted ones." Are not Christians often sinful and hardened in their hearts? And if God has totally cast off Israel, to whom He made such firm, unconditional promises, can we have any confidence that He won't do the same to the Church because of its many grievous sins through the centuries, or because of some future sin?
According to the plain teaching of Scripture, God has NOT disinherited Israel, even if only a remnant survives to the end time. "For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29). Not only Paul, the apostle to the gentiles, wrote passionately about God's unconditional and immutable love for His chosen people. The Hebrew prophets wrote just as passionately. Listen to the prophet Isaiah's plaintive query: "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she might forget, I could never forget you. See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands..." (Isaiah 49:14-16). The prophet Jeremiah goes so far as to link Israel's survival as a people, "for all that they have done," to the elements of the cosmos: "I have loved you with an everlasting love...for I am a father to Israel...Thus says the LORD who established the sun for light by day, the fixed laws of the moon and the stars for light by night...If these fixed laws are annulled by me, says the LORD, then shall the race of Israel cease to be a nation before me forever" (Jeremiah 31:3, 9, 35-36).
You may counter: "This applied to the true Israelites, the ones to whom we referred earlier, who are Jews inwardly, with a circumcision of the heart." True, it applies to them certainly. But because God determined to work through historical Israel and the Jewish nation, in order that His word and promises might be vindicated before all men, He has preserved Israel as a nation to this day, "not for your sake, O house of Israel...but for the sake of my holy name" (Ezekiel 36:22). Thus, He has kept their Hebrew culture and identity intact even in the most unnatural circumstances of exile and persecution, and within the past century caused a remnant of Israel to return to their national homeland, and revived them as a nation among the nations in fulfillment of ancient and never-cancelled prophecies of the Scriptures. All of this must be seen by the believer, whether he comes from Hebrew or Gentile stock, as a prelude to the spiritual circumcision, the spiritual Judaizing, of the people of Israel.
In the Book of Deuteronomy, after Moses has outlined the prophetic future of Israel in the context of national disobedience, exile, persecution, and restoration, he states: "And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring..." (Deuteronomy 30:6). Thus, in the final analysis, the sovereignty of God requires that the realization of Israel's spiritual destiny be not only self-circumcision but also a circumcision that is made by God Himself. It is this double aspect of the work of God which Paul and other biblical writers had in mind when they dealt with the mystery of Israel's people who were free agents to choose their way, and yet divine agents subject to the overruling purpose of Providence. And the same principle applies to the "ingrafted ones" who have become part of the Israel of God, no longer "alienated from the commonwealth of Israel." Those wild elements (from among the gentiles) who have freely chosen to become ingrafted among the "alien" natural elements (the Jews) of the Olive Tree, share its richness according to the sovereign purpose of God, but they do not support the root or trunk; the reverse is true. "It is the root that supports you," Paul reminds boastful Roman Christians.
Remember His promise to Abraham, the father of the faithful: "Through you all the families (or nations) on earth will be blessed" (Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18). Through Jesus of Nazareth, the blessing of Abraham was extended to the gentiles in practice, as Paul notes in his letter to the Galatians: "The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the Gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying: 'Through you all the nations will be blessed.' So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith...that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the gentiles..." (Galatians 3:8,9,14). Nevertheless, it was certainly NOT God's will that any believer in Jesus should be estranged from the natural people of Israel, as many Christians believe or demonstrate by their hostility to the Jewish people.
Now, in this regard, two mainstreams in the historic Church have been prominent: One consists of those who have been utterly hostile to historic Israel and who, in spirit--if not in letter--have resembled the Second Century heretic, Marcion, who sought to detach the Gospel from its Hebrew sources. The other consists of those who have taught that the Church is the "New Israel" which completely replaces original Israel.
There is, however, a third stream, faithful both to the Hebrew roots of Christian faith and to the universal teachings of the Church. Peter van Woerden, who, as a member of the well-known ten Boom family of Holland suffered much during World War II for rescuing Jews from the Nazi genocide, has written: "All over the world there is now arising a completely new type of Christian who knows that, because of their faith, they are PART of Israel."
Since Gentiles who have entered into Abraham's faith have become "fellow citizens" with the people of Israel, they have a new history, new ancestors, a new focus on the Land of Israel, its people and culture. In one sense, this link has been demonstrated in the often morbid and perverse ways that sinful men have passionately fought over the holy places in the Land of Israel and over control of the Holy Land and the Holy City, and for rights and privileges politically and otherwise in the God-centered Land. Yet, we who have come into this "commonwealth" through Christ can in no way be said to replace Israel. Together with the believing Jewish remnant, we are part of God's people, " a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation" (I Peter 2:9), called like Abraham out of heathen darkness to witness to the unsaved world. As members of the Body of Christ, we are taken inside Israel, joined to the Jew Jesus, "for salvation is of the Jews" (John 4:22). (Salvation is the very meaning of the name of Jesus in Hebrew - YESHUA.) Our ancestors are also the patriarchs of Israel, and Moses and Aaron and Miriam and Deborah, the prophets and the psalmists, the sages and the writers and heroes of faith, and "in the fulness of time," the Messiah, born of a Jewish mother, "made like his [Jewish] brethren in every respect" (Hebrews 2:17), followed by Jewish disciples and proclaimed by Jewish apostles. They are all ours because, in the profoundest sense, we are converts to Judaism, Judaism in its universal aspect.
It is not for nothing that Christians--or those called Christians--have been agitated unceasingly over the "Jewish Question," either becoming diabolically the chief instigators or perpetrators of violence against the Jewish people or among their staunchest defenders and allies. One can scarcely be neutral about a close kinship!
Likewise, it is not for nothing that a renewed stream (for it is not entirely new) has entered the worldwide body of Christian believers. In our time, men and women the world over are again identifying with the Jewish people and their culture and ancestral language. These are folk within the Body of Christ who realize that Hebrew and Hebrew culture provide a key to understanding all that is dear and central to us as Christians. Thousands of them are studying Hebrew with a motivation not unlike that of generations of Jews who kept the sacred tongue alive for worship, study, and literary communication, until "in the fulness of time" it could be revived as a mother tongue as it has been so miraculously during the past hundred years.
PART TWO, Vol. 1, No. 3
Hebrew is not quite the impenetrable language it is often made out to be. It is, to a large extent, a phonetic language with a relatively small vocabulary which requires far less command of words than, for example, the complex and often quite irregular English language in which this is being written. Hebrew is based on a relatively simple three-letter root system which provides a sure-fire memory aid in the formation of various verbs and nouns; nothing like the complexity of so many modern European languages which require learning all kinds of words and forms derived from a hodgepodge of sources. In English, we find words borrowed from the most diverse sources, such as Celtic, Medieval French, Anglo-Saxon, ancient Greek and Latin, not to overlook Oriental languages where British sailors and colonists absorbed Hindi, Chinese, Arabic and local dialects. While Hebrew in its modern revived form has absorbed many "loan" words and phrases, these tend to come from the basic international vocabulary shared by most modern languages--words like "telephone," "televisia," "politica," "relevanti," and the like.
For the Christian, however, the main attraction that Hebrew has always had is its tie to the Word of God. Obviously, except for that apocryphal saint who opined that "if English was good enough for Moses and St. Paul, it's good enough for me," most Christians are aware of the fact that the books known as the "Old Testament," the largest section of Holy Scripture and the basis for the New Testament, were composed in the Hebrew language. A much lesser awareness exists about the impact of Hebrew upon the writings of the New testament. How many Christians realize that the name "Jesus" is a rather awkward transliteration of the Hebrew name Yeshua--which literally means "salvation" and is a shortened form of Yehoshua (Joshua)? Yeshua was Hellenized to Iesous, and thence to "Jesus." This, of course, makes clear the play on words in the very opening chapter of the Gospels (Matthew 1:21) in the naming of Jesus: "for he [Yeshua] will save [yoshia] his people from their sins," a typical Hebraic way of choosing a child's name. (Compare the naming of Eve, Noah, Isaac, Moses, and many others, all derived from Hebrew wordplay.)
We may also ask how often Christians are sensitive to the important nuances of common New Testament language directly transliterated from original Hebrew speech or documents. We may think of "Messiah" (derived from the Hebrew Mashiakh, or "anointed One"), "Rabbi" (derived from the Hebrew term of address meaning "My teacher"), "Hosanna" (a recurrent phrase in the Temple prayers during the Feast of Tabernacles meaning "Save! We beseech"), and "AMEN" (a common Hebrew expletive in worship derived from a Hebrew root suggesting trust, faithfulness, truth).
There are also many other common New testament phrases and words, based on Hebrew terms, which have lost or shed some of their original sense and led to confusion about their meaning. One thinks of the use of "hell," "kingdom of heaven," or "baptism." Older translations of the New Testament often used the word "hell" for Hades (Hebrew, Sheol,, the abode of the dead; the grave) as well as for Gehenna (Hebrew Gehinnom, the place of punishment for the wicked after death, derived from the "Valley of Hinnom," near Jerusalem used as a receptacle for refuse, fires being kept up to prevent pestilence).
Some scholars have come to recognize the importance of Hebrew for an understanding of the New Testament books. This is true especially in Israel where an increasingly bold study of this literature, free of traditional Jewish-Christian polarization, is being made by masters of Hebrew and Greek. Evidence is mounting to support the claim of important New Testament scholars that nearly half the New Testament (the first three Gospels and the first half of the Book of Acts) is based on translations of sources produced originally in the Hebrew language.
At present, if you ask the average knowledgeable Christian what language the Lord Jesus and his first disciples and followers spoke, the response will more likely than not be "Aramaic." Some more knowledgeable may hyphenate their reply and say "Judeo-Aramaic," a dialect of this lingua franca of the ancient Middle East much affected by biblical and rabbinic Hebrew. Why that response should be so common among Christians is rather ironic and difficult to understand. The New Testament clearly states that Jesus in his post-resurrection appearance to the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus spoke to him "in the Hebrew language" (Acts 26:14) and that the same apostle spoke to the throng assembled in the Jerusalem Temple in Hebrew (Acts 21:40; 22:2). "And when they heard that he addressed them in the Hebrew language," the writer of Acts notes, "they became even quieter." And the fact that it wasn't merely the sound of the sacred tongue that hushed them (as it might have in later generations when Hebrew was confined to the Synagogue and its rites and House of Study) is evident from the fact that pandemonium broke loose when Paul told them in the Hebrew language that God, the God of Israel, had sent him on a mission to the Gentiles. The sacred tongue was a very living language during the days of Jesus and the apostles.
Those who claim an Aramaic cultural milieu for that period have often noted that our Gospels contain Aramaic words like Talitha cumi, ephphatha, Rabboni, and a few others. But so do all the Hebrew books of that period; for instance, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Mishnah. Even the Book of Jeremiah, dating from a much earlier period and overwhelmingly Hebrew, includes a sentence in Aramaic (Jeremiah 10:11). Likewise, the Book of Genesis contains a two-word phrase (Genesis 31:47). Nevertheless, Hebrew words in the Gospels far outnumber the Aramaic words. Following is a selection of Hebrew words that appear in the Greek text of the Gospels: Corban (Mark 7:11), Sabbath (Matthew 12:1), Satan (Luke 10:18), mammon (Luke 16:9). Raca (Matthew 5:22), bath (a wet measure, between 8 and 9 gallons, Luke 16:6), kor (a dry measure, between 10 and 12 bushels, Luke 16:7), zuneem (tares, Matthew 13:25), mor (myrrh, Luke 7:37), sheekmah (sycamore, Luke 9:4), sheichar (strong drink, Luke 1:15), levnoah (frankincense, Matthew 2:11), Wai (Woe! Matthew 23:13).
There is something, however, much more significant than a word count for determining the original language of the sources of our Gospels. It is the discovery of so many clearly Hebraic idioms and phrases scattered through the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the first half of the Book of Acts. Additionally, the clear Hebrew word order of many sentences and paragraphs points to a Hebrew undertext for these New Testament Scriptures. Unfortunately, many modern Bible translations make it difficult to observe the "Hebraisms" by providing paraphrases or "dynamic equivalents" rather than literal translations for these rich Hebraic idioms and thought forms. In the process, much original flavor of the teaching of the Lord is lost.
What did Jesus mean when he used expressions which don't make very good literal Greek sense (nor English, for that matter), but do make excellent Hebrew sense: "If your eye is evil..." (Matthew 6:23); or "If they do this when the wood is green..." (Luke 23:31) or "Whatever you bind (or loose) on earth will be bound (or loosed) in heaven" (Matthew 16:19).
While there are many typical sayings in the Gospels which are fairly well understood (probably because of their clear connection to Old Testament Hebrew wording), they are, strictly speaking, not normative English. In good biblical Hebrew we find colorful descriptions of simple acts like "looking" couched in circumlocution. When in Luke's Gospel we read that a certain rich man "lifted up his eyes and saw" (Luke 16:23), that is a beautiful expression in classical Hebrew, but not in classical or common Greek, any more than it is in English (making due allowance for the impact of good King James on English speech). Many other Gospel expressions expose the clear Hebraic understructure, which a knowledge of Hebrew will disclose to us: "cast out your name as evil," "the appearance of his countenance was altered," "lay these sayings in your ears," or "he set his face to go to ..."
Often whole sentences, even whole passages, of our Gospels translate word for word right back into the original Hebrew. For instance, when Jesus gave his commission to the seventy he sent out, he stated: "Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace be to this house' ("house" with the added Hebrew connotation of "household" or "family"). And if a son of peace is there, your peace shall rest upon him; but if not, it shall return to you" (Luke 10:5-6). This is a blend of beautiful Hebrew idioms, a knowledge of which can greatly enrich our perception of the Gospels.
Indeed, now over six decades since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is becoming increasingly evident that the spoken and written language of the Jews of the Holy Land at the time of Jesus was Hebrew. Even apocryphal books (1 Maccabees, Ben Sira, Judith, Tobit) and other Jewish literature of the period (Jubilees, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs) which have come down to us in Greek versions have been found to be translations from Hebrew into Greek for the Greek-speaking jews of the Diaspora. Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus), for example, was known only in Greek until less than 90 years ago. Fragments of the Hebrew text of this book then began to come to light, and today we have almost two-thirds of the book in the original Hebrew, the most recent discovery in 1964 occurring at the Masada excavations in the Judean desert.
As more and more discoveries come to light and scholarly research into ancient sources continues, we are learning that at least to the end of the first century A.D., and even later, the principal language of the Jews in the Holy Land was Hebrew. The Dead Sea Scrolls are almost entirely in Hebrew; the Mishnah (the so-called "Oral Law") is in Hebrew; the later rabbinic commentary on Scripture, the Midrash, is also mostly Hebrew. Of the thousands of parables in the rabbinic literature, so consonant with the style of Jesus' teaching, only two are in Aramaic, all the other being Hebrew. All Jewish coins minted between 103 B.C. and A.D. 135 have Hebrew inscriptions, except for one coin of Alexander Jannaeus. Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor (A.D. 105), has left an ancient statement on the subject of the Hebrew connection to the New Testament. "Matthew put down the words of the Lord in the Hebrew language, and others have translated them, each as best he could."
On the basis of his study of Matthew's Gospel and other literature contemporary with the Gospels, an Israeli scholar, Yehoshua M. Grintz, in a monograph entitled "Hebrew as the Spoken and Written Language in the Last Days of the Second Temple," has asserted that "Hebrew was the only literary language of that time; and to this alone we can attribute the fact that the new (Christian) sect of 'unlearned and ignorant men' (Acts 4:13) set out to write its main book, intended for its Jewish members, in this language." Grintz further pointed out that Hebrew was a vehicle for communication with Jews who lived outside the Land of Israel. Already at the beginning of the Christian era Hebrew was a kind of lingua franca for the many-tongued Jewish Diaspora. Recall, for example, the scene (described in the Book of Acts) of the Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost: "... we hear, each of us in his own native language" (Acts 2:8). Nevertheless, Hebrew remained the language of Jewish Palestine and its masses of people throughout the New Testament period and until the final revolt against Rome in A.D. 13.
One would expect that the centrality of Hebrew to the biblical milieu, extending even to "the unlearned and ignorant" hoi polloi out of which the Christian movement emerged, would coax the mainstream of Christian fellowship to be more than slightly interested in their Hebrew matrix and sources. If even a fraction of the interest of the Christians in the New Testament Greek studies were applied to Hebrew studies, the results would be revolutionary. Why, then, should Christians so seldom consider the study of Hebrew, which is even more vital than Greek study for their perception of Scripture? Is it because Christians so seldom realize who they really are in relation to their Hebrew roots?
We would even dare add that there will be no permanence to many ministries of the Church, especially those directed toward the comfort and support of Israel in their homeland or in their various Diasporas, unless and until those ministries place a strong emphasis on the study of Hebrew. The Body of Christ on earth must recover or sharpen its perception of its Hebrew identity and roots. The widespread study of Hebrew among Christians grounded in Scripture is surely one of the major vehicles for moving into that reawakening.
David Bivin has lived in Israel since 1963, when he came to do graduate studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. From 1970 to 1981, he was director of the Hebrew Language Division of the American Ulpan, and also director of the Modern Hebrew Department of the Institute of Holy Land Studies on Mt. Zion. David is co-author of two books: Fluent Biblical and Modern Hebrew, and Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus. He is now the publisher of Jerusalem Perspective, a monthly report for lay people on current research in Israel into the words of Jesus.
Since 1981, David has served as Yavo's Director of Research and Education. David additionally serves as director of the Jerusalem School for the Study of the Synoptic Gospels.
Yavo Digest, 1987
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