Wednesday, August 08, 2007

An Answer to, Part 6

Well, I'm back. I've finished moving into the new house, with the exception of a couple of pieces of furniture which I will get next week, and a few dozen boxes of books to be put back on the shelves. So let's return to our regularly-scheduled blogging:

The purpose of this article is to defend Messianic Judaism against what I believe to be an unfair and unscriptural attack. While this of necessity requires a certain amount of “counter-attack,” I will try to keep the focus on the arguments rather than the person, though some comments about Vicki’s general tendencies in her writings are necessary.

To Embrace Hebrew Roots: Part II
The Bible & The Talmud

Vicki begins her section on the Talmud with a personal note, expressing her love for those she in her article argues against despite finding ”material that I have found disturbing.” She goes on to say, “What I feel very strongly is that all the issues addressed were dealt with at the cross. Truly, His grace is sufficient.” Very true; however, the Hebrew Roots and Messianic movements have never been about overturning a belief in salvation by faith (though we would argue, as would Vicki, that faith without works is dead, per Jas. 2:17; cf. Eph. 2:8-10)—it is about how we who are already saved should now live. To repeat the mantra I am trying to promote throughout the Messianic world: I do not try to keep the Torah in order to be saved; I follow the Torah because I am saved, and I want to be like my Savior in every way.

Vicki next writes,

What I do have, is a strong sense or desire to see deceptions--regardless of who propagates them--exposed. This issue is very large and complex. Not all that is said about one group's views can necessarily be applied to all.

Now this is an amazing admission, since her previous section did indeed take “one group’s views” and apply them to all Messianics, and did so several times, at that! It is also surprising to see her admit the complexity of the issue, as she is about to take a very large, complex set of documents, the Talmud, and try to reduce it to a handful of distasteful passages without regard to the historical or cultural context, or even a fair comparison to Christian writings from the same period. I shall demonstrate this as we proceed.

Let me start out with a warning, however: As my own writings on the subject indicate, I am not one who regards the Talmud as holy, though I do think that it is useful in understanding 1st Century Judaism, the crucible that forged what we today call Christianity, and I do find the rabbis’ understandings of certain passages and concepts to be extremely insightful and thought-provoking, especially when we see the parallels in their beliefs and a New Covenant belief. I also believe that a Messianic Jewish believer living in a Jewish community is as bound to follow the authorities of that community, the rabbis, as we are bound to follow the authorities of our country, state, etc.

However, I would be the first to admit that there is much material in the Talmud that is frankly wrong and embarrassing; I would also be the first to admit the same of the great body of Christian writings through the centuries. In both cases, one must learn to understand the text in its original context, then to chew up the meat and spit out the bones.

With that in mind, let us look at Vicki’s claims about the Talmud and its relationship with Messianic Judaism and the Hebrew Roots movement.


Vicki’s overview is just that, and overview, and does not contain enough information for the first several paragraphs to dispute; she is simply framing her argument. She then writes of her intent,

[This section] evaluates the need for Midrash, Mishnah, Haggadah, Halakah, and the use of the "Ancient Wisdom" versus the teaching of the New Testament and the sufficiency of Scripture with the teaching of the Holy Spirit.

First of all, on what basis are the two necessarily opposed? She argues in favor of the Received Text—but does the Bible itself speak of the RT? No; rather, Vicki is the beneficiary of centuries of “ancient wisdom”—tradition and scholarship—in reconstructing the Koine Greek of the NT (and the Hebrew of the Tanakh), and even in knowing which books to include in the Bible!

And let’s look at what she’s arguing against here:

  • Midrash – this just means “teaching” or “delving”; is Vicki claiming to have never received teaching about the Bible from extra-Biblical sources?

  • Halakhah & Mishnah – literally translated, halakhah is “the way you walk,” this is how the rabbis understood how to apply God’s commandments to our lives. The Mishneh is the compilation of the 2nd Century rabbis’ halakhah. Does Vicki refuse all discussion on the proper application of God’s commands in our lives?

  • Haggadah – this is simply the “order of service” for a Passover Seder. Is Vicki against all orders of service in all churches everywhere?

When we get past all of the Hebraisms, we find that there are parallels in Christian teaching to virtually every aspect of Jewish interpretation. Consider the long-standing debates on the proper way to baptize, the proper description of the Trinity, whether one can drink or smoke, etc. before we condemn the rabbis for having the same sorts of discussions on their side. Therefore, Vicki cannot object to the fact of such interpretive methods and applications; she can only object to the form—in this case, a distinctly Jewish form. But is it really illegitimate to refer to Jewish sources as well as Hellenized (Christian) sources in understanding the Scriptures? On what basis? Should we not consider a culture’s language, idioms, practices, etc., in understanding such an important Book from that culture?

If Vicki is so certain that the Holy Spirit is meant to be our sole source of information about the Scriptures, then let her no longer quote from any translation, but hereafter read only the original Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, trusting in the Spirit—not human translators—to interpret the words for her.

But if she relies on scholarship to translate the words of the Bible into her own language—scholarship which does in fact use extra-Biblical Jewish and Greek literature in order to interpret the meanings and connotations of the words of the Bible—then let her cease from disparaging those of us who rely on scholarship to translate the cultural idioms of the Bible into our own language as well!

Regarding those of the Hebrew Roots movement who challenge the Greek New Testament, I will say first and foremost that such are the minority. Most of the movement bases its arguments not upon what the original Hebrew might have been, but on the Greek manuscripts that we do have (see, for example, Stern’s Jewish New Testament Commentary). Where some (like FFOZ) do occasionally refer back to what Yeshua’s original Hebrew and/or Aramaic words might have been, no significant Christian doctrine is challenged in the process; rather, such excursions are generally taken either a) explain the “hard sayings” of Yeshua (particularly in the book of Matthew), or b) to compare one of Yeshua’s sayings or that of an Apostle to that of a Jewish source (such as the commentaries on John 1:1 by Lightfoot and Holding, which we reference here).

In any case, it is almost a given that Matthew and Hebrews, at the very least, have a Hebrew origin, as attested to by the early Church fathers. Papias (quoted by Eusebius, Eccl. His. 3.39) and Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 3.1.1) both report that Matthew was originally written “among the Hebrews in their own dialect.” Jerome likewise bears witness to this when he writes (On Illustrious Men, ch. 3):

MATTHEW, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Caesarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered. I have also had the opportunity of having the volume described to me by the Nazarenes of Beroea, a city of Syria, who use it.

Likewise, the book of Hebrews has a witness in Clement (Fragments, 1) that it was translated from Hebrew to Greek (by Luke). If indeed it was originally written to the Jews in the vicinity of Judea to correct a dependence on the Temple service, it could not have been written in Greek originally, for as Josephus notes in his Antiquities (20.11.2),

I have also taken a great deal of pains to obtain the learning of the Greeks, and understand the elements of the Greek language, although I have so long accustomed myself to speak our own tongue, that I cannot pronounce Greek with sufficient exactness; for our nation does not encourage those that learn the languages of many nations . . .

While it does not follow that every book of the NT was written in Hebrew or Aramaic, the fact that these two most likely were—and more importantly, the fact that virtually every word our Lord originally spoke would have been in those two languages—means that going beyond the Greek and attempting to reconstruct the Hebrew is a worthy venture. Nor does it deny the doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures, for inspiration and inerrancy has always been understood as applying only to the autographs, not to copies nor translations.

After quoting 2 Pt. 3:16—what significance she finds for the current subject is not given—Vicki writes, “Orthodox scholars agree that the New Testament was originally written in Greek.” How she defines “orthodox”—does this merely mean scholars that agree with her views?—or how she arrived at the unspoken “all” in her statement are not given; she quotes only two sources. A far better treatment of the issue of Matthew’s original language, for example, which acknowledges an ongoing discussion as to the possibility of an Aramaic/Hebrew original of Matthew, is presented by the non-Messianic apologist J.P. Holding here.

Vicki next quotes one Hyram Maccoby as stating that the Gospel accounts reflect an anti-Semetic bias. Here she once again has not done her homework, as the mainline Hebrew Roots and Messianic movements have done a great deal of scholarship to prove that the Gospel accounts and other NT writings, far from being tainted by anti-Semetism, actually reflect an internal debate between Jews and a great concern for the Jewish people as a whole, not the external debate between “Christians” and “Jews” that many Christian commentators consider a given when reading them. For example, Lancaster writes in the introduction of King of the Jews,

Jesus was really Jewish. If you saw Him, you could not possibly mistake it. The man was Jewish. Everything He did and said was patently Jewish. That’s what this book is about. (p. ix)

After describing the shift from being a distinctly Jewish faith to “a new Christianity” which “defined herself against Judaism and Jewishness” (p. xi), Lancaster states,

However, the church’s sacred writings—the Gospels and Epistles left behind by those earliest believers—testify to the absolute Jewishness of the man and the original faith. The evidence remains within the books of the New Testament, like an ancient, hidden code. Most Christians read over it without ever suspecting its existence. (p. xii)

As one reads through the books and articles written by dozens of Messianic authors (including this author’s own webpage), one finds the same conclusion repeated over and over: The problem has never been with the New Testament, but with the presuppositions we have read into it. Maccoby would therefore actually be on the far fringe of the movement, and certainly not a spokesman for it.

Once again, Vicki has displayed a complete lack of discernment in choosing who to hold up as indicative of the direction of the Messianic and Hebrew Roots movements as a whole.


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