The study of the Hebrew (Jewish) roots of the New Covenant writings, and of the Christian Church, have taken on new life of late. Hundreds of scholars meet annually to discuss and compare their findings. Of particular interest are the “synoptic” Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke. The word “synoptic” is from the Greek synoptikos, “a seeing together.” The three accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching appear to have been drawn from some common sources. John’s Gospel appears to rely on other sources.
The New Testament writings come down to us in Greek, translated into English and other languages. What is not generally known is that there is evidence that behind the Greek texts there was a Hebrew original. We may also learn that Jesus’ teaching language was Hebrew, not Aramaic, as is commonly supposed. These last two points, are of course, controversial. However, thanks to the work of scholars in the Jerusalem School for the Study of the Synoptic Gospels, they can be demonstrated to be true.
The work of Dr. Robert Lindsey
The late Dr. Robert Lindsey, who lived in Jerusalem for much of his adult life, worked closely with Jewish scholars at Hebrew University in that city. At some point Lindsey embarked upon a translation of the Gospel of Mark into Hebrew. He writes, “My own encounter with the strong Hebraism of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke came several years ago when I had occasion to attempt the translation of the Gospel of Mark into Hebrew. What first caught my attention was the very Hebraic word order of the text of Mark…the syntax or word relationships were just such as one would expect in Hebrew,” Foreword, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin & Roy Blizzard, Jr.
In other words, Lindsey found Greek written as if it were Hebrew (ibid.).Upon further study, Lindsey found that “hundreds of Hebraisms lie hidden beneath the surface of the Greek texts of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke,” (ibid).
These textual discoveries, and others, eventually led to the founding of the Jerusalem School, mentioned above. This article lays out some of the primary discoveries and shows how they can shed light on the meaning of specific texts and on aspects of Christian Church history. Before we continue, however, we must take note of some significant facts. We must see Jesus and his disciples for what they were: Torah-observant Jews.
The Jewishness of Jesus
Jesus – Yeshua in Hebrew – was a Jew (Hebrews 7:14; Matthew 1:1-16) and a rabbi (John 1:38; 1:49; John 3:2; 3:26; 6:25). He was raised in the synagogue (Luke 4;16). He studied Torah with the sages from an early age (Luke 2:41-50). In fact, it is likely that Yeshua was educated in the traditional manner of Jewish boys of his time: “He used to say: At five years old [one is fit] for the Scripture, at ten years for the Mishnah (Oral Law), at thirteen for the fulfilling of the commandments, at fifteen for the Talmud…(Mishnah, Nezikin 21).[Note: The Mishnah may be defined as the deposit of four centuries of Jewish religious and cultural activity in Palestine, beginning at some uncertain date (possibly during the earlier part of the second century B.C.) and ending with the close of the second century A.D. – Introduction to the Mishnah – Danby translation.]
At thirteen, boys typically went through Bar Mitzvah meaning “son of the commandment.” At that point, they were personally responsible to God for their relationship to his instructions. The assumption was that they had been properly taught (Proverbs 22:6).
All of the original disciples (learners or students) were Jews who studied at the feet of their Rabbi Yeshua for several years. Later they became apostles (shlichim = emissaries or “those sent.”)
Both Testaments Hebraic
Dr. Roy Blizzard, Jr., and co-author David Bivin write: “It should be emphasized that the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) is, in its entirety highly Hebraic, In spite of the fact that portions of the New Testament were communicated in Greek, the background is thoroughly Hebrew. The writers are Hebrew, the culture is Hebrew, the religion is Hebrew, the traditions are Hebrew, and the concepts are Hebrew.
“We tend to forget that the Old Testament comprises approximately 78 percent of the Biblical text, and the New Testament only 22 percent. When we add the highly Hebraic portions of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts 1:1-15:35, approximately 43 percent of the New Testament) to the old Testament, the percentage of biblical material originally written in Hebrew rises to 88 percent (or 87 percent if we omit the portions of Ezra and Daniel – less than 1 percent of the Old Testament – composed in Aramaic).
“Not more than 12 percent of the entire Bible was originally written in Greek. When we subtract from that 12 percent the 176 quotations from the Old Testament (14 Old Testament Old Testament quotations in John and 162 from Acts 15:36 to the end of the New Testament), the percentage of the Bible originally composed in Hebrew rises to over 90 percent,” (ibid. pp. 4-5).
The point is, 90 percent of the Bible is better understood if we view it through Hebrew eyes.
The Apostolic Era
Upon the death and well-witnessed resurrection of Jesus (I Corinthians 15:6) the Church entered into the Apostolic Era. During this time “…they steadfastly continued in the teachings of the apostles and in fellowship and in the breaking of bread and in prayers,” (Ats 2:42). Some scholars believe the term “breaking of bread” refers to the keeping of the Lord’s Supper.
The apostle’s teaching of course came from Jesus. Jesus taught the disciples in his own language which was Hebrew, not Aramaic. (The theory that Jesus taught in Aramaic arose in the Middle Ages.)
We know this from a variety of sources – the Church Fathers, the Dead Sea Scrolls, coins of the time, first century inscriptions, Josephus’ writings and Rabbinic literature – to name some.
Eusebius, the Church historian, wrote: “Matthew put down the words of the Lord in the Hebrew language, and others have translated them, each as best he could,” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III 39,16).
Irenaeus and Origen both echo this thought. The above-mentioned sources are expanded upon in the book Understanding the Difficult words of Jesus pp.23-52.
Jesus’ Jewish apostles roamed the Empire preaching the Gospel “…to the Jew first, and to the Greek,” (Romans 1:16b).
As they spread out, many were martyred or otherwise persecuted. Toxic streams of thought, like Gnosticism, seeped in to contaminate the purity of apostolic teaching. By the time of Jude, the original faith, as passed on from Jesus through the apostles, was under attack. Jude wrote: “Beloved, when personally exerting all my diligence to write to you concerning the common salvation, I was compelled to write to you, exhorting you to fervently fight for the faith, which once for all time was delivered to the saints,” (Jude 3). The next verse shows the nature of at least some of the opposition.
Further, though somewhat less compelling, evidence for Hebrew in the Synoptics comes from the ubiquitous presence of hendiadys throughout.
The Role of Hendiadys
David Bivin explains the role of hendiadys in Hebrew: “Adjectives are relatively rare in Hebrew. One way Hebrew overcomes its scarcity of adjectives is by using two nouns linked together by the conjunction “and.” Grammarians call this usage “hendiadys,” two terms linked together by “and” that form a unit in which one member is used to qualify another,” Jerusalem Perspective Online January 1, 2004.
Hendiadys are found in Hebrew, Greek and English. In English, for example, one might say, “I’m good and mad.” That does not mean “I am good and I am mad,” but rather “I am very mad.”
Genesis 12:1 contains a hendiadys: God instructs Abraham to “leave your land and your birthplace,” These are not two different places.”Birthplace” modifies “land.”
Bivin writes: “”If it is true, as a majority of scholars in Israel suppose, that much of the Synoptic Gospels is “translation Greek,” that is, Greek that has been translated quite literally from the Hebrew, then one would expect to find examples of hendiadys in the synoptic Gospels. And indeed one does.” (Ibid. p. 2).
Hebrew Idioms in the Synoptics
An idiom is a group of words the meaning of which is not discernible from the meaning of its individual words. For example “It’s raining cats and dogs,” “the drop of a hat.” Translated into another language, one might not recognize such a term as an idiom and might thereby take it literally.
Every language has its idioms, including Hebrew. Because many Biblical texts have been translated literally, Hebrew idioms have found their way into our translations but their meaning did not accompany them.
Lets consider an example. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, we find these words: “…he lift up his eyes being in torments…” (Luke16:23). Now compare this with the KJV translation from the Hebrew in Genesis 24:63-64. To “lift” ones eyes up is a Hebrew idiom. It means “he looked” or “he saw.” This idiom occurs 35 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Compare Genesis 24:63-64 for example.
In translating the Hebrew text into Greek, Aramaic or English it is important to render the meaning of an idiom, not just a slavishly literal translation of it. The Hebrew language is full of Hebraisms, hendiadys and idioms.
The Formation of the Scriptures
In Paul’s day, the Scriptures were exclusively Jewish. They included 39 “books” or documents. The first five – all on one scroll – included Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These were the books of Moses. They were viewed as Torah = Divine instruction.
The second section was called “The Prophets.” It consisted of History and the three “major” prophets, along with the twelve “minor” prophets. The terms “major and “minor” have nothing to do with relative importance but with length.
The third section is called “The Writings.” It consists of 13 additional books like Psalms and Ecclesiastes.
Taken together, the Jews call these books by the acronym TaNaKh = Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim. Sometimes the Jews simply referred to “The Law and the Prophets” as a shorthand way of saying the TaNaKh.(Matthew 7:12).
When the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, his son in the faith, he said, “…from a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus,” (II Timothy 3:15 KJV). What “Scriptures” are these? The TaNaKh of course. It was what we Christians call “The Old Testament.”
Timothy was the son of a Greek Gentile father and a devout Jewish mother, (Acts 16:1-3; II Timothy 1:5). How did Timothy become familiar with the content of the Scriptures? He attended Synagogue each Sabbath with his mother. There he heard the weekly Scriptural readings. There were two cycles of readings – one taking a year and the other three years. The yearly cycle began on the first Sabbath after the feast of Succoth [Tabernacles]. The readings consisted of two parts – the Torah and the Haftara portion. (Haftara means Conclusion.) The first reading, for example, is Genesis 1:1 – 6:8 and Isaiah 42:5 – 43: 11. (Lists of Torah readings for the year are available on the web.)
The Formation of the New Testament
Only Messianic Jews (Jews for whom Jesus is the prophesied Messiah) and gentile Christians believe that the New Testament is Scripture. It emerged in the midst of great controversy over centuries of time. It was not until the Catholic Council of Nicea (325 C.E.) that a major attempt to create a New Testament canon occurred. (If you’d like to read a detailed account of the creation of the New Testament, The Journey from Texts to Translations – The Origin and Development of the Bible by Paul D. Wegner covers the subject).
Before a canon was created, much of the apostolic teaching was passed on orally. Virtually all of the original believers were Jews who worshiped in the Temple and in the synagogue. Like Timothy and his mother, they had only the “Old Testament” Scriptures.
Following the deaths of the original Jewish apostles, Gentile leadership began to assert itself. “By the fifth century,” writes Dr. Roy Blizzard, “the Church to the West had so completely severed itself from its Jewish roots and the historical foundations of faith that the Church from the fifth century onward becomes little more than a shell of the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints,” Yavo Digest, Vol. III, No. 1, p. 19.
Church historian Lars P. Qualben asserts: “…at certain periods, the Church has been sadly secularized and paganized,” A History of the Christian Church, p.3. One of the leaders in this drive to transform Christian theology was Origen (185(?)-254 AD). “Origen is credited with being the father of the allegorical method of interpretation (though others preceded him in using this approach).
Why was Origen thus credited? “Origen, in a comprehensive system, made allegory the only way to truly understand the Scriptures.
“In Origen’s system of interpretation he often denied the ordinary sense of the text, and replaced it with allegories which he made up. These allegories then became the real meaning of the text…In this allegorical system, when the text said ‘Israel’ it meant ‘the Church’ and not the Jews, so long as the promise or comment was good. If the promise or comment was not good, then ‘Israel’ still meant ‘the Jews’ and not ‘the Church.’” – The Church and the Jews by Dan Gruber, p.17.
Such strange ideas have consequences: “It is Origen’s system of interpretation that produces the anti-Judaic ‘New Israel’ theology where the Church replaces the Jews in the plan and purpose of God,” (ibid. p. 18). As the Church grew in numbers, the Jewish bishops were replaced by Gentile bishops: “The Roman Empire had destroyed or removed the Jewish bishops and churches. They were replaced by Gentile ones. The Gentile bishops and churches naturally began to think of themselves as having replaced the Jews,” (ibid. p. 19).
Eventually, this notion led to the doctrine of supersessionism – the belief that the Church has superceded Israel as the chosen, covenant people of God. This odious doctrine has filtered down through the ages and it is still believed by many. More on that later.
Origin’s Approach to the Bible
The noted Church Historian, Philip Schaff, documents Origin’s approach to Scripture. He writes: “Origin was the first to lay down, in connection with the allegorical method of the Jewish Platonist, Philo, a formal theory of interpretation, which he carried out in a long series of exegetical works remarkable for industry and ingenuity, but meagre in solid results. He considered the Bible a living organism, consisting of three elements which answer to the body, soul and spirit of man, after the Platonic psychology. Accordingly, he attributed to the scriptures a threefold sense; (1) a somatic, literal, or historical sense, furnished immediately by the meaning of the words, but only serving as a veil for a higher idea; (2) a psychic or moral sense, animating the first, and serving for general edification; (3) a pneumatic or mystic and ideal sense, for those who stand on the high ground of philosophical knowledge.
“In the application of this theory he shows the same tendency as Philo to spiritualize away the letter of Scripture, especially where the plain historical sense seems unworthy, as in the history of David’s crimes; and instead of simply bringing out the sense of the Bible, he puts into it all sorts of foreign ideas and irrelevant fancies. But this allegorizing suited the taste of the age, and, with his fertile mind and imposing learning, Origin was the exegetical oracle of the early church, till his orthodoxy fell into disrepute,” – History of the Christian Church by Philip Schaff, Vol. 2, p. 521.
It is common to say these days, “Ideas have consequences.” Indeed they do. Origin’s allegorical approach to Scripture has been devastating to the Jewish people. Origin’s idea of supersessionism has taken root in the Church. As the “replacement doctrine” gained credence, the role of the Jews in the divine scheme of things was diminished. Dwight Pryor explains: “In effect Israel has little role – in fact none – now that Jesus has come and accomplished redemption.
This is the way the Church Fathers read the Scriptures, and the way many do today as well,” A Different God? By Dwight A. Pryor, p.8. In a 2006 article in Issue No. 2 of Sword and Trowel, systematic theologian, Dr. Robert Raymond, wrote; ‘All God’s land promises to Israel in the Old Testament are to be seen as shadow, type and prophecy, in contrast to the reality,, substance and fulfillment of which the New Testament speaks. We Christians as members of Christ’s Messianic Kingdom, we are the real heirs to the land promises of Holy Scripture, but in their fulfilled character in the heavenly hereafter,” A Different God? by Dwight Pryor, p.2.
Dan Gruber sums up the implications of the doctrine of supersession; “Contemporary theologies are built upon an anti-Judaic foundation. In varying degrees, they are built upon the assumptions, teachings and errors of Origin, Eusebius, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin and Luther,” The Church and the Jews, p.330. Gruber then describes “The New Israel” doctrine: This view “…maintains that natural Israel, the physical seed of Abraham, failed and was cast away; and that the Church is a new, spiritual Israel – the spiritual seed of Abraham through Jesus – which replaces the old. The apparently physical promises to physical Israel are spiritually fulfilled to spiritual Israel. Consequently, this is generally an amillennial position, since the Millennium implies a physical reign of Messiah upon the earth, from Jerusalem, over all nations. The “postmillenial position is similar in this regard,” (ibid. p. 330).
Returning to an earlier discussion, Gruber explains the theological shift that took place in the early, “gentilized’ Church: “The Church became identified as the “new Israel” replacing the Jews. As the “new Israel,” the Church itself was equated with the kingdom of God, since it was the kingdom of Israel that God had promised to restore. Because God had entrusted the sword of the kingdom/nation, the “new Israel” also picked up the sword,” (ibid. p. viii).
Gruber then explains two things that uncovering this anti-Judaic foundation will accomplish: “First; I will make it easier to discern and understand what has been built upon it and why. Second, it will make it evident why contemporary theologies differ from Biblical teaching in the ways that they do,” (ibid. p. viii).