God has revealed himself to us through his works and his words. God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” have been revealed in his work of creation (Rom. 1:19-20). Sadly, sinful humanity easily misinterprets what God has revealed in creation. We’ve “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25). We need something more than God’s general revelation through creation; we need special revelation through his Word.
In his wisdom God chose to make himself known through language. God chose the family of Abraham and God spoke to them in a language that they understood. Hebrew became the language through which God revealed most of the Old Testament (with a few passages written in Aramaic). And when the gospel spread throughout the world of the first century, it was communicated in the most common language of the day: Greek.
This does raise a few questions about how God communicates today. Most believers do not have access to the original languages and so have no other choice but to use translations. These translations have become a bone of contention for some believers, especially for those who hold that the original languages are somehow unique or special.
Hebrew Roots is such a movement. They take exception to our modern translations, often accusing them of deliberately confusing the original text in order to deceive. This can be seen most clearly in their approach to the Names of God and their insistence that the New Testament was also written in Hebrew.
Names of God
The Hebrew Roots Movement believes that to be faithful to the God of the Bible, we must use the names by which he identified himself to Israel. They are adamant that we cannot use the Names of God as they were translated into other languages. Some even consider it blasphemous if we fail to use the Hebrew Names of God. For example, we must call him "Elohim" (God) or “Ha’Shem” (the Name). We are also told that we cannot pray in the Name of “Jesus Christ,” but should pray in the name of “Yehoshua Ha'Mashiach.”
The original Hebrew-Aramaic name of Jesus is Yeshu‘a, which is short for yehōshu‘a (Joshua). The name occurs 27 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and is mostly used to refer to the high priest after the Babylonian exile. It was not an uncommon name, with as many as five men being called Yeshu’a in the Old Testament. Dr. Michael L. Brown, who has a PhD in Semitic languages, explains how we got from Yeshu’a to Jesus: “Simply stated, this is the etymological history of the name Jesus: Hebrew/Aramaic yeshu‘a became Greek Iēsous, then Latin Iesus, passing into German and then, ultimately, into English, as Jesus.”
Some Hebrew Roots proponents insist that the true name of the Messiah is Yahshua, but there is no evidence for this. It is likely that their zeal for Yahweh’s name caused them to combine the two names. A.B. Traina, a Hebrew Roots teacher who wrote the Holy Name Bible, was a vocal proponent of this position. According to Traina, “The name of the Son, Yahshua, has been substituted by Jesus, Iesus, and Ea-Zeus (Healing Zeus).” This is a lie, first spread by the sacred name cults of the 1930s. Here is Brown’s evaluation of his position: “In this one short sentence, two complete myths are stated as fact: First, there is no such name as Yahshua (as we have just explained), and second, there is no connection of any kind between the Greek name Iēsous (or the English name Jesus) and the name Zeus. Absolutely none! You might as well argue that Tiger Woods is the name of a tiger-infested jungle in India as try to connect the name Jesus to the pagan god Zeus. It is that absurd, and it is based on serious linguistic ignorance.”
The Hebrew Bible
Because of their insistence that the Hebrew Names of God are the only legitimate names by which God may be called, the Hebrew Roots Movement believes that the New Testament was originally written in Hebrew. They believe that the Greek New Testament is a corruption of the original Hebrew text. This approach betrays a sad ignorance of biblical history.
Before the Babylonian exile, Judah mainly spoke Hebrew, and most of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. After returning from exile the province of Judea was under Persian rule, which meant that Aramaic became the official language of government. It gradually became the most common spoken language in the region. Hebrew and Aramaic are closely related Semitic languages that mixed and influenced each other during this period. Some portions of the Old Testament were originally written in Aramaic (parts of Daniel and Ezra), as were some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other early Jewish literature.
When Alexander the Great conquered the region Greek became the language of government, trade, and culture. By the third century BC many Jews had completely lost their ability to speak or read Hebrew and Aramaic. That is why the Old Testament was translated into the most common language of the day, Greek. This translation became known as the Septuagint, or LXX (referring to the 70 scribes who were said to have translated the whole Old Testament text).
Fast forward to first century Palestine and you find a multi-linguistic society that mirrors much of our own. Most people groups retained their unique languages, but Greek became the most widely spoken language in the region (much like English in our own world). Greek would have been the most likely language through which the gospel was communicated and the manuscript evidence confirms it. We have more than 5000 manuscripts containing parts or the whole of the New Testament. All of these manuscripts are in Greek. There are various translations in Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, and Georgian, but they were all translated from the original Greek.
In contrast, there are no ancient manuscripts for a Hebrew New Testament. We do have ancient copies of the New Testament in Aramaic, however these reflect dialects from the Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. These dialects were very different from the Aramaic that Jesus spoke.
There are early church historians, like Eusebius, who mention that Matthew used a collection of Hebrew sayings of Jesus to compile his gospel. Some early writers even suggested that Matthew originally wrote in Hebrew. Yet there is no evidence for such a manuscript and even Eusebius’ claim is ambiguous. He does not say that the gospel was written in Hebrew, nor does he explain what these Hebrew sayings were.
The most telling sign that the New Testament was not written in Hebrew, is the inclusion of Hebrew words and phrases in the text itself. For example, in Mark 5:41 we read: “Taking her by the hand he said to her, "Talitha cumi," which means, "Little girl, I say to you, arise."” This means that Jesus did in fact speak Aramaic, but also that Mark’s readers didn’t. If the entire gospel was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic, why only preserve this saying? And if the Name of God should not be profaned by translating it, why preserve this saying and not the Name of God?
Drew Longacre summarizes it like this: “there is much evidence for an underlying Semitic language (especially Aramaic) for parts of the Gospels, particularly in the sayings of Jesus. There is also considerable Semitic influence in the Greek language of many New Testament authors. But there is no linguistic reason to suppose that any of the complete Gospels or other New Testament books were originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic in their entirety.”
God made himself known to his people in a language that they understood. In the Old Testament it was Hebrew and Aramaic, and in the New Testament it was Greek. In his wisdom the Lord allowed Old Testament references to be translated into Greek in the New Testament, as well as his Name. When the Gentiles heard the gospel, they heard of Iēsous Christos (Jesus Christ) who died for their sins upon the cross, triumphed over death through his resurrection, ascended into heaven, and who now offers the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life to all who would repent of their sin and believe in him. Knowing the original languages can be a wonderful help, but you don’t need to know Hebrew to know the Saviour.
1. Brown, Michael. 2013. What is the original Hebrew name for Jesus? https://askdrbrown.org/article/what-is-the-original-hebrew-name-for-jesus Accessed: 12 July 2023
3. Longacre, Drew. 2023. Was the New Testament written in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek? https://www.logos.com/grow/min-was-the-new-testament-written-in-hebrew-aramaic-or-greek/. Accessed: 25 June 2023
Rico Cortes was raised in a Christian community in Puerto Rico, but in the 1990s he began researching his family history. He found that he was a descendant of medieval Spanish Jews. After devoting himself to the study of Scripture, he came to a surprising conclusion: “When I kept reading the Bible, [Jesus] kept Shabbat, he ate kosher, he kept the faith.” He decided that the best way to understand and follow Jesus was to live the way Jesus had lived, which meant he too would observe the Torah. Is that what it means to follow in Jesus’ footsteps?
Of course, true Christians should want to be more like Jesus. After all, we are called to look to Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). He is our ultimate example. He “suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21). Every true believer strives for Christlikeness. But what does “being like Jesus” mean?
Jesus was a Jew, obviously. He was born a Jew and perfectly obeyed all the requirements of the Law. He fulfilled the demands of the Law for us (Rom. 8:1-4). Should those who follow Jesus become observant Jews like Jesus was? Should Gentile believers try to be Messianic Jews? In the words of Richard Fisher: “Should they don a yarmulke, worship in a synagogue, blow a shofar, wear a prayer shawl, call Jesus Yeshua or Yeshu, keep the Old Testament feasts and dietary laws, and give their pastors the title of Rabbi, even though Matthew:23:8 says otherwise? Are Jewish ceremonies and practices efficacious? … Is Jewishness next to godliness?”
The Hebrew Roots Movement seems to think so. Here is our first summary the Hebrew Roots Movement’s erroneous teachings. In this article we will focus on the Torah, dress code, and their view of Israel.
The Hebrew Roots Movement teaches that believers should live a Torah-observant life. This means that the ordinances of the Mosaic Covenant must kept and should be a major focus for believers today. Keeping the Torah includes keeping the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week (Saturday), celebrating the Jewish feasts and festivals (refer Leviticus 23), keeping the dietary laws, avoiding the "paganism" of Christianity (Christmas, Easter, etc.), and learning to understand the Scriptures from a Hebrew mindset.
The Hebrew Roots Movement teaches that those who belong to Christ will keep the law, not out of legalistic bondage, but because of their love for Christ. The reality, however, is very different. They teach that to please God, a Torah-observant walk must be part of a Christian’s life. If we do not observe the Torah, at least not in the way that they believe most agrees with ancient practice, we cannot please God and therefore cannot be his children.
What many in the Hebrew RM don’t seem to realize, is that it would be impossible to return to the practices of the early church. Dr. Stephen Katz of Jews for Jesus helpfully points out that much of what the Hebrew Roots Movement espouses today is based on later Jewish and rabbinic tradition. They are actually following the Jewish Talmud, which was completed some 500 years after Christ. Few within the movement even know that there are two Talmuds, a Babylonian and Palestinian Talmud, with some serious differences between them.
Men in the Hebrew Roots Movement cover themselves with the Yarmulke (in Yiddish) or Kippa (in Hebrew). They also use the Tallit (Prayer Shall) to cover their heads. Most wear tassels, called tzitzit, though they aren’t always visible. These, again, are worn in obedience to the Torah, specifically Numbers 15:38-40. The context makes it clear that these tassels were supposed to be a reminder to Israel to obey the law. The Pharisees were known for their adherence to these external requirements, but the tassels themselves did nothing for their hearts. Hebrews 8 makes it clear that such a reminder is no longer necessary, since the law resides in the heart of the believer through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The Hebrew Roots Movement is understandably obsessed with Israel. In extreme cases they claim to be descendent of the 10 Northern Tribes and claim land rights in Israel. Some claim the right to make "Aliyah" (Law of return to Israel by Jews). They even consider themselves to be as much Israelites as Israel of this age.
Israel, then, becomes the lens through which God looks to us. It also becomes the lens through which Hebrew Roots proponents look at others. Your support for and identification with Israel will determine whether you are acceptable or not. This is clearly false. Even more concerning, is the teaching of some HR proponents that Israel will be saved even apart from Christ.
The New Testament teaches that the Father looks upon his children through Jesus Christ, his beloved Son, “whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). Gentile believers are grafted into the people of God (Rom 11:16-24). What the Hebrew Roots Movement fails to realise, is that the root of the cultivated olive is not the law, but the faith of Abraham. Israel itself is not.
Listen to what Paul writes in Galatians 3:7-11: “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "In you shall all the nations be blessed." So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them." Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for "The righteous shall live by faith."”
Not all Israel (ethnically) are truly Israel (spiritually), and the distinction is not law, but grace (Rom. 9:6-16).
In our next article we will focus on the names of God and the Hebrew Bible.
1. O’Neil, Lorena. 2014. Hebrew Roots rising: not quite Christians, not quite Jews. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/03/13/ozy-hebrew-roots-movement/6373671/ Accessed: 5 February 2015.
2. Fisher, G. Richard. 2014. Bewitching believers through the Hebrew Roots movement. https://www.thebereancall.org/content/january-2014-bewitching-believers-hebrew-roots Accessed: 25 June 2023
Tangled in Roots
In the 1970s the ‘messianic movement’ sought to reach ethnic Jews with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The hope was to show them that Jesus truly is the Messiah prophesied in the Scriptures and that by believing in Him they can receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. Practically speaking, it meant sharing the gospel with ethnic Jews.
Turn the clock ahead 30 odd years and the landscape has changed considerably. Jews who believe in Jesus are not the only ones claiming to be ‘messianic’. One movement which has laid claim to the title is the so-called Hebrew Roots movement.
What is the Hebrew Roots movement?
It is a difficult movement to pin down, as Menachem Kaiser explains: “It’s a loose identity. There isn’t a church, there isn’t a leader. It gets very fragmented.” Kaiser wrote an in-depth article on the Hebrew Roots movement for Tablet magazine. In it Kaiser describes what seems to be the common denominator in the various branches of the movement: “The movement’s central belief is that the Torah is still binding—that God, or Yahweh, or Hashem, did not intend for Yeshua’s appearance to render irrelevant the lessons of the Old Testament, whose rules and instructions remain valid. The Brit Chadasha, or New Testament, which most Christians believe superseded the Torah, is understood as a sort of extension of the Torah.” Stephen Katz, North American Director of Jews for Jesus, gives this succinct definition: “The Hebraic Roots or Jewish Roots movement refers to various organizations with a common emphasis on recovering the original Jewishness of Christianity.”
Most of those who associate with the movement are not ethnic Jews. They are Gentiles who have no intention of converting to Judaism yet follow Jewish laws, customs, and practices. This has caused no small amount of confusion and trouble for those ethnic Jews who do believe in Jesus. Rich Robinson, who serves as Senior Researcher at the Jews for Jesus headquarters in San Francisco, wrote a series of articles on the challenges that the Jewish messianic movement faces. He writes: “Some ministries and groups exhort all followers of Y'shua—Jewish or not—to observe Jewish holidays. Many teach the importance of recovering the first-century faith of believers in Jesus and rejecting the pagan notions they feel have corrupted faith in the Messiah.” Exactly what pagan notions they reject is not always clear; it ranges from the rejection of worship on Sunday to the rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. However, the movement is united in its rejection of modern Christianity as a perversion of the pure, first century version of their religion.
The history of the Hebrew Roots movement is as opaque as its teachings. Because it has no structure and should be considered a “grass-roots” movement, determining its origin is very difficult. Earlier movements, like the Sacred Name Movement and the World Wide Church of God from the 1930’s have definitely influenced the perspectives of the Hebrew Roots Movements. For example, Herbert Armstrong – leader of the World Wide Church of God – taught that Christians had to observe parts of the Jewish law, including keeping the Sabbath, adhering to Jewish food laws, and celebrating the Jewish festivals. He also believed in British Israelism, which teaches that British, American, and many European peoples were descended from the so-called Ten Lost Tribes of the Northen Kingdom of Israel. Most alarming, however, is Armstrong’s rejection of the Trinity, which many proponents of Hebrew Roots also do.
Even though Hebrew Roots takes many of its cues from Armstrong, the movement really took off after his death in 1986. In the mid-90s Dean Cozzens of Open Church Ministries published a supposed prophecy titled “The Hebrew Movement”. In it he claimed that God had foreordained four movements in the 20th century. Pentecostalism would be the first, then faith healing, leading to the Charismatic movement and finally, the Hebrew roots movement. Others joined the movement and in 1998 Dean and Susan Wheelock began publishing Hebrew Roots Magazine. They also started a website, Hebrewroots.net, which still operates today. With the help of the internet the movement started to grow and spread.
Not all Hebrew Roots proponents will agree with this characterization of their origins. Richard Fisher explains that the movement has many other influences and has branched into numerous streams. He writes: “It’s hard to define the HRM because it is so diverse and made up of so many disparate groups and individuals. It’s a moving target. It’s a vast smorgasbord of everything from scholarship, as in the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research, to so-called Third Questers, to individuals practicing subjective pop (make-it-up-as-you-go) Judaism. It can even include the medieval mystical Kabbalah, with its esoteric numerology. More often than not there are no distinctions made between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant or between the Bible and the Talmud. This movement can impose legalism with a vengeance or in some instances may simply suggest Jewish practices that they say will give us deeper insight and understanding as well as make us more “authentic” believers.”
Even though the movement is varied, there are common traits that has the potential to do great harm to the church and its witness to the lost.
1. Quoted by O’Neil, Lorena. 2014. Hebrew Roots rising: not quite Christians, not quite Jews. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/03/13/ozy-hebrew-roots-movement/6373671/ Accessed: 5 February 2015
2. Kaiser, Menachem. 2014. For some believers trying to connect with Jesus, the answer is to live like a Jew. http://tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/161086/observing-torah-like-jesus?all=1 Accessed: 5 February 2015
3. Katz, Stephen. 2001. The Jewish Roots movement: flowers and thorns. Havurah 4(1).
4. Robinson, Rich. 2003. The challenge to our Messianic movement, Part One. Havurah 6(2): 2-3.
5. Fisher, G. Richard. 2014. Bewitching believers through the Hebrew Roots movement. https://www.thebereancall.org/content/january-2014-bewitching-believers-hebrew-roots Accessed: 25 June 2023